Forget March Madness. Or the run for the Stanley Cup. And you can keep your Super Bowl, Grey Cup or World Series.
For my money, the most exciting sporting event on the planet is the NCAA's "Frozen Four", which since inception in 1948 has combined all of the speed and action of hockey with the circus-like insanity that is U.S. college sports. Plus it has loads of Canadian content -- many of the top players come from the Great White North.
I first got hooked on college hockey as a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. These were the days of the late "Badger Bob" Johnson, one of the greatest collegiate coaches in the history of the game. In that era Wisconsin's football team was awful and the basketball team couldn't dribble its way out of a paper bag. Hockey, on the other hand, was the hot ticket and every game was a sell-out.
Sell-outs, in a 15,000-seat arena, have pretty much been the case ever since.
What made the games so appealing, putting aside the quality of the play, was the college atmosphere. You had mascot Bucky Badger - on skates! You had cheerleaders - on skates! And you had the UW Band (non-marching version) - on SOMETHING, judging from their tune selection and general demeanor.
And then there was the student section. Long before I got there, some bright psychology major came up with something called the "sieve" cheer. This was only employed when the visiting goalie gave up a goal. The entire section took out actual sieves...and pointed them at the poor netkeeper...while rhythmically chanting, "sieve, sieve, sieve". And woe to a high-flying (and highly-ranked) team, usually North Dakota, Minnesota or Denver, that came into Madison with less than their A Game. The chant "over-rated" would rain down on them like a Vancouver winter's day.
Using a mix of home-grown Wisconsin and Minnesota talent, liberally infused with Canadian content from north of the border, Wisconsin has typically been at or near the top of the Western Collegiate Athletic Association and in the hunt for a NCAA berth on a regular basis.
And once a college hockey fan, always a college hockey fan. I have been to dozens of NHL games, mostly in Toronto, Boston and Ottawa, and not one has matched the electric excitement of a NCAA Frozen Four match-up. The best game I ever saw was at Boston Garden in 1973, Wisconsin vs. Cornell. Cornell was leading 5 -2 in the third period. Wisconsin managed to tie the game 5-all with seconds remaining in regulation time. Then, incredibility, in OT the Wisconsin goalie, Jim Makey of Dunville, Ontario, stopped TWO Cornell breakaways. The Badgers then put the game away, 6 - 5.
Exciting? I was in the first row of the second balcony at the old Garden, 30 meters above the ice, seated with my youngest brother, Tom -- and nearly lost him over the rail celebrating. Not something you want to have to explain to your parents.
And your team doesn't have to win to enjoy these festivities. Indeed, you don't even need a team.
Last weekend I traveled from Ottawa to Manchester, New Hampshire, for the NCAA Regional Playoffs. I met my brother there (who for some reason now prefers floor-level seats). We saw the Badgers get their tails kicked, 6 - 1, by a better Massachusetts - Lowell squad. And we stayed on for the Regional Final between the Lowell River Hawks and the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. It was a terrific, spirited game (one that sent the River Hawks through to their first-ever Frozen Four Championship.)
I know most eyes will be on the upcoming Final Four NCAA Basketball Tournament in Atlanta April 6 & 8. But my eyes will be on the NCAA Frozen Four in Pittsburgh the following weekend. It's the greatest tournament nobody's ever heard of.