By PATRICK SLACK
After getting knocked out of its conference tournament in the semifinals, Ben Hanowski and St. Cloud State University (SCSU) needed some help to get into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s hockey tournament.
Once they did, though, the Huskies took it from there, rolling through the Midwest Regional as the fourth seed to give SCSU its first trip to the Frozen Four in school history.
The Huskies played well during the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) regular season.
But a shaky start in non-conference play had the team nervous when selections were handed down said Hanowski, who graduated as the state’s all-time leading high school scorer for Little Falls and is now a senior captain for SCSU.
“We were sweating it out a little bit,” Hanowski said. “We played well in the conference, but struggled a little bit early in the year. That was really what was hurting us and holding us back.”
“We were a little nervous and needed some help,” he said. “Thankfully we got it and just started playing extremely well after that.”
Hanowski played a leading role in helping SCSU strong start to the NCAA tournament, as the Huskies clashed with the Midwest’s top seed in Notre Dame in the first round, scoring the opening goal of the game.
He added an assist in the SCSU’s four-goal second and before Notre Dame could recover, the Huskies were on their way to a 5-1 win in Toledo, Ohio, March 30.
“It was big,” Hanowski said. “Our coaches had emphasized that we needed to get off to a good start. Once we got that first goal, it relieved a little pressure and we were able to relax a little bit.”
It was more of the same in the region final the following night, as the Huskies once again took control with an early goal against Miami of Ohio, advancing with a 4-1 victory.
“We didn’t expect that (margin),” Hanowski said. “Against Notre Dame we played extremely well and had a bit of a flurry in the second period. We’ve been a team that can do that throughout the year.”
“We got the lead in both games and that was really crucial,” he said.
It was a big step for the Huskies, who had entered with a 1-9 record in tournament play in school history, with only one trip even to the regional finals, but that didn’t creep into this year’s team’s thoughts.
“We can’t control what happened in the past,” Hanowski said. “None of us had really played in the tournament except for the three of us seniors, so it wasn’t really a factor for us.”
The regional championship capped a whirlwind week for Hanowski, who found out his NHL draft rights had been traded by the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Calgary Flames in a deal that included six-time All-Star Jarome Iginla.
Pittsburgh drafted Hanowski in the third round of the 2009 draft. Under NHL draft rules, teams retain the rights of draftees while they continue to play in college, leaving Hanowski with some attachment to the Penguins, but not enough to leave him too broken up by the news.
“A little bit because I had gone to a couple Pittsburgh development camps, but not a ton because I hadn’t played any games for their affiliates,” Hanowski said.
“It was kind of a unique situation to be traded for a future Hall of Famer,” he said. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m just trying to focus on my last few weeks here.”
For now, SCSU will have its hands full in the Frozen Four semifinals in Pittsburgh, Penn., April 11, as they square off against top-ranked Quinnipiac.
“I don’t know a ton about them,” Hanowski said. “They’ve been ranked one or two the entire year, they’ve been playing at a high level and are well-coached. We’re going to have to be ready to play if we’re going to win.”
“My parents are going to be coming,” Hanowski said. “I have great support from my family. I don’t think they’re going to be missing this big of a deal.”
If SCSU defeats Quinnipiac, it will play in the national championship game, April 13 against the winner between Yale and Massachusetts-Lowell.
“Deep down, I wanted to be part of a championship team,” Hanowski said. “I did not necessarily think it would be in my senior year – my freshman year we were extremely close too – but I wanted to be a part of a winning program.”
“It’s a pretty special group that we have here,” he said. “Being able to play with these super guys two extra weeks is the best part about this. We want to take care of business and go in there and win the whole thing.”