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March 8, 2013

by Kyle Kujawa -

NCAA hockey is coming to Grand Rapids, as Van Andel Arena will host the West Regional of the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament on March 29 and 30! Four of college hockey’s top teams will compete in West Michigan to secure a spot in next month’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, and fans can purchase a two-day, three-game pass for just $65 by clicking here. Several Griffins have participated in the NCAA tournament, and we’ll highlight their experiences throughout March.

First-year head coach Jeff Blashill has his Grand Rapids Griffins in good shape to make the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs, as the club has held first place in the Midwest Division for most of the season and sits among the top seeds in the Western Conference with just over 20 games to play.

But it’s not the first time Blashill has coached a team to success in West Michigan. He helped the CCHA’s Western Michigan Broncos earn an at-large bid to the 2011 NCAA Tournament after a successful season and strong showing in their conference championship.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” Blashill said. “It doesn’t seem like I was only there for one season, based on the memories I have from that year. We had a group of players that were committed to doing things that hadn’t been done in a long time there.”

In 2010-11, Blashill’s lone season at the helm, the Broncos finished with a 19-13-10 regular season record, which secured their first winning season since 2001-02 and first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 1995-96. After Blashill departed for an assistant coaching job with the Detroit Red Wings, longtime NHL coach Andy Murray led the team to a spot in the 2012 tournament, solidifying it as an up-and-coming power in college hockey.

“There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment,” Blashill continued. “When I was offered and took the job, I believed that Western could become a national power. For me, it’s more happiness than anything. There are so many people that have so much pride in that program and have worked for so many years, through some tough times. To see it now be a really prominent program in the country is a great thing.”

Coming off an eight-win season in 2009-10 and boasting just three NHL-drafted players, not many would have predicted the Broncos to end up in the NCAA Tournament at the beginning of the season. Beyond that, they were eventually selected to a group that included powerhouses like the University of North Dakota and the University of Denver, who rank first and second, respectively, in NCAA championships.

Western Michigan came out strong against the Denver Pioneers, holding a 2-0 lead with five minutes to play in the game. But two late goals from Denver forced overtime, and the thrilling contest ended with the Broncos falling in double overtime.

“It was a great game,” said Blashill. “We were a little bit of an underdog to Denver, but we certainly felt if we played our best game, we had an opportunity to win. We had a lead late and we gave it up, which was tough, but some of that was a credit to Denver. At the end of those types of games, you want to say that you gave it everything, played great and left it all out there, and sometimes the result doesn’t follow.

“I really thought that, even though we lost that game, it was a step in the right direction to have future success at Western Michigan. And because of that, I really felt a great debt to our seniors for the way they played in that game.”

Come the tournament’s return to Van Andel Arena at the end of this month, the Griffins will be in Texas in the middle of a season-high seven-game road trip. But Blashill knows that fans in Grand Rapids will be treated to an energetic and exciting brand of hockey.

“The NCAA Tournament is unlike other events, especially in hockey, because it’s a one-game deal,” he said. “You lose one game and your season is over. The amount of pressure on each individual game is tremendous.”

Despite the Broncos’ underdog status, they were just one fortunate bounce away from advancing in the 2011 tournament. Being able to reflect on the experience two years later, Blashill doesn’t often wonder what could have been.

“Once you get there, you’re four wins away from a national title,” he said. “That can seem like an unachievable dream at the beginning of the season, but once you get there, it’s not. It’s something our players will treasure as a really memorable moment in their lives, and it certainly is in mine as well.”

Hockey fans can get a peek at which teams will skate at Van Andel Arena when the field is announced live on ESPNU on March 24 at 9 p.m. Regardless of the competition, as a supporter of college hockey, Blashill has seen firsthand the excitement that the regional will bring to the area.

“Because of the fact that it’s a one-game-and-done tournament, the emotion surrounding the game is really to a height that’s hard to replicate,” said Blashill. “It’s like a Game 7 in a playoff series, where you know the winner is going the right way and the loser is not. There are a lot of really good players at these schools that are going to play in the NHL. It’s a high level of play. That type of emotion is really exciting to be a part of.”

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