Back in the day, American hockey was dominated by the ‘Three Ms’ of Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts. That’s where the majority of players came from, and that’s where many of the most powerful college programs resided. So it was fitting that the 1991 Frozen Four final took place at the St. Paul Civic Center in Minnesota, with teams from Michigan and Massachusetts competing for the crown – the Boston University Terriers and the Northern Michigan Wildcats.
The two teams were a study in contrasts. The big-city Terriers boasted numerous NHL draft picks and future stars, while representing a program that had won three national championships. Their legendary coach, Jack Parker, had been behind the bench when B.U. last won it all back in 1978.
Not to be outdone, the Wildcats had an esteemed bench boss themselves in Rick Comley, who had taken Northern Michigan to the final in 1980 before losing to North Dakota. The 1990-91 Wildcats were a veteran unit with talent, but only one hot-shot NHL prospect in defenseman Brad Werenka – who was recruited by NMU when they were one of the few programs to realize he had taken extra courses to graduate high school a year early. So he made his way to small-town Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to play for the Wildcats.
Northern Michigan came into the tournament on a roll. The Wildcats hadn’t lost a game since Christmas, when they fell to St. Cloud State. They won the WCHA tournament, earning the No. 2 seed in the Frozen Four’s West bracket. After beating Alaska-Anchorage in the quarterfinal, the Wildcats toppled top seed Maine to grab their spot in the final.
Over in Boston, the Terriers also earned their bid through a conference tournament win, though Maine and Boston College both had better records in the Hockey East regular season. Boston U. knocked off Michigan in the quarterfinal and Clarkson in the semifinal to snag a ticket to St. Paul and its famed clear dasherboards. The resulting clash between the Terriers and Wildcats turned out to be one of the most stunning Frozen Four finals in NCAA history.
SCOTT LACHANCE: (Boston University defenseman) We struggled early in the season, but after that we became a cohesive unit. Like Northern Michigan, we got better as the year went on. Our No. 1 line was Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte and Shawn McEachern, that was probably a good start for why we were successful.
SHAWN McEACHERN: (Boston University center) Keith was a great power forward, and he was only a freshman. He could throw his body around and had a lot of talent. Tony was super fast and smart, he was one of the best scorers in college hockey. They had a great team with Brad Werenka, Dallas Drake and Bill Pye, who was an all-American. He was one of the top goalies in college hockey at the time.
ED RONAN: (Boston University right winger) We had an interesting blend of players and an influx of kids like Keith Tkachuk. It can take awhile to find your role when you’re a kid because you don’t know what kind of player you’re going to be in college and the coach doesn’t always know either. For guys like myself, my role as a freshman was very different from my role as a junior and senior. Once we all adjusted, we started to score a lot of goals, our team was driven by offense. It was a fun style to play, but not necessarily conducive to winning a championship. That final game was what our team was all about, putting up big numbers, but there was also big risk.
LOU MELONE: (Northern Michigan defenseman) A lot of teams had bigger names, we just had a great team. Everyone wanted to play for each other. The approach we had was what we had the entire year. We had a businesslike attitude, we were dialed in and we just played, no matter the opponent.
DARRYL PLANDOWSKI: (Northern Michigan left winger) At the time, (Northern Michigan) had a lot of Canadians, and my linemate Dean Antos was going there. I was a smaller player and I wanted to play. I had talked to North Dakota and Wisconsin, but Northern Michigan felt like the right fit.
MARK BEAUFAIT: (Northern Michigan center) I was coming out of Detroit as a bit of a late bloomer. I knew assistant coach Walt Kyle, so there was that connection. I had a lot of teams telling me I needed another year of junior, but Northern Michigan offered me a scholarship right away. To be honest, I probably needed another year of junior, but there was a comfort level at Northern Michigan.
LACHANCE: They were on a huge streak, and we knew their power play was great. We knew they were talented, but we didn’t know what to expect.
RONAN: We felt we could score a lot of goals against anyone. We knew Billy was a good goalie and that they had good players, but personally I didn’t overanalyze things. We had beat up some pretty good teams along the way, we had beaten Michigan on the road late in the season and found a pretty good stride going into the tournament. I felt like we were pretty prepared.
McEACHERN: We had a lot of fun. Jack was a great coach. He would really get the guys pumped up before a game, telling us to play through guys and to play B.U. hockey. Jack was a great motivator.
RICK COMLEY: (Northern Michigan coach) They were extremely dangerous. We hadn’t lost in the second half, but they were on a run of their own. The biggest worry was they were blowing up teams early. The first 10 minutes were critical.
By 9:26 of the first period, the Terriers had jumped out to a 3-0 lead thanks to two goals by Ronan and one by David Sacco.
COMLEY: Great coaching.
RONAN: My first goal, I had some good speed to split their defense, and Dave Tomlinson threw a waist-high pass at the blueline that I knocked down. I was in full stride, and it sat down in front of me. I beat Billy on a good shot. My second goal was a high tip as I was coming around on the cycle. I was high in the slot and Billy was coming off his post, that was a tough play for a goalie.
MELONE: Obviously it wasn’t the start you’d want, but there was no panic. You’re not happy, and it’s not a good thing, but you keep moving forward.
BEAUFAIT: They were just fast. They had some explosive players. We regrouped after the first period. We had a veteran team and great senior leadership, which helped. We knew we had to pick away at the lead, and it started snowballing, goal after goal.
LACHANCE: It wasn’t the type of 3-0 lead where we thought we were cruising by this team. They were quick in moving the puck, and they were talented. They kept coming. Werenka was all over the place, he made them a different animal.
BRAD WERENKA: (Northern Michigan defenseman) There was concern, but we didn’t think it was as bad as it looked. We knew we had to get our feet moving and get some bounces.
PLANDOWSKI: We knew we could score, so being down 3-0 early? I don’t think any of our guys panicked. We had averaged more than six goals per game that season. We had goal-scorers.
The second period proved to be the tonic for Northern Michigan, as the Wildcats scored five consecutive goals to take a 5-3 lead. Antos got the ball rolling, with Beaufait, Scott Beattie (twice) and Plandowski also scoring.
COMLEY: We were an experienced team. As soon as we made it 3-1, we could relax a bit. If they had gotten the fourth goal, it would have been another story. It was nuts. Both goalies had good years, but the offensive talent of the two teams took over.
WERENKA: The first was important to just get rolling. Then we started to get the bounces that they were getting in the first period.
PLANDOWSKI: It was a wave. Scott Beattie got going, I scored one, and it put them on their heels. The momentum changed. All of a sudden we had great energy, and I’m sure their legs felt heavy. It was like two different games.
BEAUFAIT: Scott Beattie just knew how to put the puck in the net. He was a smaller guy and not particularly fast, but he knew where to be, and he was confident.
RONAN: We might have been gunslingers, but we weren’t that bad defensively. I don’t know what happened. (Northern Michigan) came out with another level of energy, and we couldn’t match it. It was like, “Holy mackerel! How do we stop this freight train?” It was unfathomable, really.
LACHANCE: We had to go into the dressing room and take a deep breath and calm down. Chris McCann and Mark Krys were great in the room. The third period was the most important, and we had that calming influence with us all year.
RONAN: There were two ways to look at it. Did we just blow it, or what kind of team are we? We had a big senior class, so we had faced adversity before. It was more about letting it go. That next goal was really important.
McEACHERN: We had done it before. We had a comeback in the Beanpot against Boston College, where Amonte got hurt and then came back and scored a hat trick. And we had comeback against Maine in the Hockey East tournament, too.
MELONE: In games like that, you don’t hear the crowd or the noise. You’re going back and forth and you just play. You’re up 5-3, but the game isn’t over. I don’t think anyone was relaxed, no one felt safe. You just didn’t know.
Northern Michigan had been fantastic at locking down leads all season: the Wildcats were 32-0-2 when leading after two periods. They would extend the lead in the third period against Boston U., with Plandowski making it 7-4 on the power play.
PLANDOWSKI: I took it off my skate, and the puck was rolling. I got unbelievable wood on it, without having to shoot too hard. I knew it was a good shot. You get into those moments where everything feels right and you’re completely focused.
The Terriers, however, would not give up. Boston U. chipped away in the final half of the third. Amonte and McEachern connected twice, and then with 40 seconds remaining – and goaltender Scott Cashman on the bench for the extra attacker – Lachance found Sacco for the tying goal to make it 7-7.
LACHANCE: It was a desperation play. I dove and poked it to Sacco. I’d be lying if I said it was planned.
MELONE: I remember diving for it just as he shot it…I just missed it.
We couldn’t match it. It was like, ‘Holy mackerel! How do we stop this freight train?’
– Ed Ronan, Boston University
PLANDOWSKI: Same old thing, the worm turns. Guys were taking 15-second shifts and getting off the ice because they were tired. The energy was gone. They had momentum, we had lost it. At that point, you keep the game simple, dump pucks.
COMLEY: You’re watching the clock. They were coming and coming. They get a fluky goal and tie it. Billy never saw it.
With time running down and the game tied, the Wildcats made an ill-advised line change that led to Lachance springing Amonte for a breakaway with just seconds remaining. The future NHLer unloaded a slapshot from the hashmarks.
WERENKA: He came straight off the bench, and I remember chasing him down and diving with my stick, trying to take away part of the ice. It was desperation, and it was scary, to have been up 7-4 in the third and then with a few seconds left, you give up a Grade-A scoring chance to one of the most dangerous players in the country.
PLANDOWSKI: Amonte was an elite skater, so explosive. I spent the whole game trying to contain him and keep him to the outside. It was a role I always took on, and I was comfortable with it, it was just about trying to keep up with him.
MELONE: I remember just putting my head down on the bench. One of the best goal-scorers in U.S. college hockey goes down on a breakaway? Oh no. But then Billy comes way out of his net with the puck in his glove like, “Look what I’ve got.” If you saw
his face, it was like, “OK, let’s move forward.”
WERENKA: Billy always had such a great style to him. He put an exclamation point on that save, swinging his glove up like that.
I put my head down on the bench. one of the best scorers in college goes on a breakaway? Oh no.
– Lou Melone, Northern Michigan
RONAN: Tony was a tremendous goal-scorer for us. He rushed that shot a bit more than he had to because he didn’t know how much time was left on the clock. But he had beaten goalies with that shot before. But if you watch the tape, just before that, we had a faceoff to Billy Pye’s left where Dave Tomlinson wins the faceoff and gets it to me. I took a really strange off-angle shot that went off Billy’s shoulder or the crossbar. That’s the one I want back.
PLANDOWSKI: I’ve watched the highlights since, and it was a spectacular save. At the time, it was like, “Holy crap, let’s get out of here and into the room.” We were on the ropes.
COMLEY: Billy Pye made the biggest save of his career.
The save came with one second left on the clock. The NCAA national championship game was headed to overtime.
COMLEY: You’re walking off the ice terribly disappointed. Did we blow it? They were tired and discouraged, so I used some coach-speak. I said, “If I told you before the game had started that we’d be heading into overtime against this team, you’d feel pretty good about it, right? So let’s go out and try to win this.” You try to sell them.
MELONE: It’s a 0-0 game, let’s go play. Punch the clock, work your butt off. Maybe it had numbed us, we had been in the trenches.
PLANDOWSKI: I don’t think we panicked. It was a coin flip. We needed to regroup and start skating again. The start of overtime was a 50-50 game again. You just went up and down the ice, both teams had great chances.
The best chance came in the first overtime period when Boston University defenseman Kevin O’Sullivan entered the zone on a rush. What followed was one of the more probability-defying sequences that could ever be imagined on a hockey rink.
MELONE: He’s on the left side. He hits the post and it goes to McEachern. His shot hits the same post, then slides to the other post. That was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen. It was as if someone was standing there making sure it didn’t go in.
RONAN: Kevin had a really nice rush. He put the puck through the kid’s legs and then took a great shot. It looked like Shawn had it wide open. I was over the boards, I might’ve actually been on the ice, because I thought it was over. And I was not alone, we all had our sticks up.
McEACHERN: It was a slapshot that hit the post and came right at me. I was happy to get good wood on it, but I one-timed it off the post and then off the other post.
It was even closer than that: after hitting three posts in three seconds, the puck actually hit the sliding Werenka’s skate near the goal line before Pye was able to smother it.
WERENKA: It happened so quickly, it was hard to adjust. When you’re a defenseman and there’s a play in the crease, you want to get your feet up. But it all happened so fast, all I could do was angle my foot so the puck wouldn’t go into the net. I twisted my skate blade to try and stop it, but the problem was that Billy was also sliding back toward me at the time. Once he grabbed it, I thought we had a really good chance of winning. If that didn’t go in, we had a good chance to win.
COMLEY: When McEachern came down, hit one post and then the puck slid across before Werenka cleared it…I honestly had started to step off the bench to congratulate Jack Parker. When I saw that it hadn’t gone in, I carefully stepped back, hoping nobody had seen me.
With 40 seconds remaining in the first 10-minute overtime period, Northern Michigan’s Tony Szabo had his own close call, blasting a slapshot from just inside the blueline and hitting the crossbar behind Cashman. The second overtime period didn’t solve anything, with Cashman and Pye making a series of diving stops. But at 1:56 of the third overtime, history was made. Comley had bumped up Beaufait from fourth-line center to third-line right winger, joining Antos and Plandowski. That combination turned out to be pivotal. Led by Antos, the line approached the Terriers’ zone with speed. Plandowski skated the puck over the blueline, then made a nifty drop pass between his legs to Beaufait. It was a risky move, and Plandowski immediately circled back in defense mode after making it.
PLANDOWSKI: I knew Amonte was on the ice. If he got the puck, he’d potentially have a breakaway, so after I made the pass I turned back towards our zone. (Beaufait) got it, and he was an underrated player, an elite skater.
WERENKA: That drop pass…it was pretty gutsy.
BEAUFAIT: I didn’t think Darryl would put it through his legs in overtime, to be honest. I was just trying to give him space in the offensive zone, and when he dropped it back, I picked it up. I didn’t think I could get a shot off. I kept carrying it wide, but the D-man had his stick on me.
WERENKA: Beaufait was a talented guy and had so much patience. He may have been on our fourth line, but he had 49 points. They had to respect his shot, and he kept pushing on his forehand. There were three guys on him, and the goalie followed him, too. He put it in the perfect spot to Darryl.
PLANDOWSKI: (Beaufait) drove wide and all the Terriers followed him. As I turned back toward the net, there was now a big, empty area. I don’t know if I yelled or if he looked over his shoulder, but he put a perfect pass on my stick.
BEAUFAIT: I definitely didn’t hear Darryl yell, but I knew I had dragged defenders with me. I knew one of our guys would go to the slot, because that’s what you’re taught in hockey. Go to the net.
COMLEY: I can still to this day see the winning goal develop. Time seemed to stop, and you’re going, “Darryl, shoot it, shoot it!”
PLANDOWSKI: Sometimes you rush things and misfire, so I made sure I hit the net. You practise that play a thousand times, but it’s different in a game. I took a split-second before I shot it to make sure.
And make sure he did. With an 8-7 victory in triple OT, Northern Michigan secured its first and only national championship.
RONAN: I probably overplayed my position on that play. But that’s what life is, you make mistakes and you learn from them.
PLANDOWSKI: I got credit for the goal, but three or four things happened in a 30-second sequence to make it happen.
BEAUFAIT: I played center the whole year. I had never played on the wing until that point. We were a deep team. I was on the fourth line, but I was also on the power play. I was fresh heading into overtime, because I hadn’t played as much as some of the other guys.
LACHANCE: At that point, you’re just trying to get the next goal. You’re nervous and excited. When Plandowski scored, we couldn’t move on the bench for a full minute. We were in the room for over an hour afterward. The way that game ended was historic, but it was hard for us. It was a tough one to be a Terrier for.
McEACHERN: I just remember cramping up in the third overtime. It was pretty disappointing. We thought we could have won it all that year.
MELONE: It’s finally over. You’re just so exhausted at that point. It was one of the longest games in U.S. college history. You’re running around celebrating, but you just want to lie down.
WERENKA: As soon as the puck went in, it was pure elation, especially for us seniors who had been there so long. Just elation and exhaustion. With hockey players, you hate losing more than you love winning, but this was one of those rare times where those two things were connected perfectly. Years later I put on the tape and I almost couldn’t watch it. I kept pausing it and putting my head in my hands. I can’t imagine what it was like to be a fan watching the game back then.
RONAN: To have 14 goals scored in regulation, and then none through several overtime periods…it was like two different games.
BEAUFAIT: It’s surreal. That game was so up and down. The biggest feeling was relief. I couldn’t believe we had won a national championship, a small school like ours.
The afterparty was just as sweet for the Wildcats – and a huge bash for the scores of fans who made the trip from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to see their boys win it all.
COMLEY: It was great. We stayed in St. Paul before heading back. The police arrested a bunch of our fans, it was a mess. But I remember landing, and the highway was lined with people.
PLANDOWSKI: That group of players had been together a long time, and we were really close with the community. That’s the great thing about a small college town like Marquette. Everybody knew us. We had parents, ex-teammates and the community all there with us.
BEAUFAIT: They travelled well. When we got back to town the next day, there were limousines and cars to take us in from the airport to the pep rally. The gym was jammed, it was special.
WERENKA: There was a convoy going back miles and miles to Marquette. It was special. That’s what college hockey is all about.
RONAN: I’ve won a Stanley Cup (with Montreal in 1993) and I can tell you that the end results of games are not what I remember as much as pieces of the journey itself. Obviously it hurt, but you know that in one game, anything can happen. There are other emotions. It was my last college game ever, so those are more the emotions you have to deal with, knowing you wouldn’t be playing with those guys again and that you might be playing against them in the future.
While B.U. lost the title, the future was bright for many of the Terriers. Amonte, McEachern and Tkachuk went on to have long NHL careers, while Lachance played for more than a decade before retiring and becoming an amateur scout for the New Jersey Devils. But even now, that 1991 Frozen Four final comes up.
LACHANCE: Darryl Plandowski is a scout for the Tampa Bay Lightning now. I see him too often. He never says anything about that game…but he doesn’t have to.