A top reason why watching hockey in person at this time of year can be especially exciting: If a team has a hot goaltender, it can take that team far into March and into April.
Last weekend we watched Minnesota Duluth goalie Ryan Fanti stand on his head, stopping 55 shots in two nights as UMD captured its third NCHC Frozen Faceoff title in school history (2017, 2019) in consecutive shutout wins over Denver (2-0) and Western Michigan (3-0) in St. Paul.
“That was a special game and special performance from a pretty darn good goaltender,” noted NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton. “It was exciting to be there in person to watch.”
The NCHC bills itself as the nation’s premier college hockey conference, and for good reason—in eight short years, the eight-team league has had 12 teams play in the NCAA Frozen Four. Five out of eight years an NCHC team was the nation’s number-one club. In five straight NCAAs, the league had a national finalist and four national champions.
Sunday, the NCHC saw five clubs make this year’s NCAA 16-team field, tops for any league.
And Fenton has been there from the start. He actually is the league’s second Commish, but when he took over in July 2013, there hadn’t been any games played. Therefore, under his watch, along with the aforementioned feats, he helped create the Frozen Faceoff, whose winner usually gets an NCAA bid; the league’s digital network, NCHC.tv; a 3-on-3 overtime format; and he moved the league’s crowning event to downtown St. Paul.
Also, along the way, Fenton graciously and candidly answered questions from the Black Press, despite the fact that more often than not the MSR’s was the only Black reporter in the place and didn’t regularly cover any of the eight NCHC teams. He announced earlier this year that he will be leaving the NCHC after nine years for the Horizon League commissioner’s job in April after this year’s NCAAs. Fenton gave us an “exit” interview after last Saturday’s UMD-WMU title game.
“I just appreciated people like you,” admitted Fenton about an hour before midnight, “and you, in particular, covering our conference, asking me questions about diversity, equity, inclusion, because I don’t think that gets asked enough in our sport.”
Long before George Floyd’s death and the sudden pledges from nearly everyone to improve this country’s racial relations, including the typically all-White sport of hockey, Fenton helped form an NCHC diversity task force, which later extended out to include other conferences around the country.
“We are not doing enough,” declared Fenton. “We need to do more. But you’ve asked questions that have helped us think about things a little bit differently,” he pointed out. “I just want you to know that I appreciate that.”
Finally, we asked the outgoing NCHC commish one more tough question: What were his parting thoughts?
“That’s a tough question, Charles,” said Fenton on his near-decade leading the conference. “You know…it really has been a passion and a love and more for nine-plus years. I was pretty heavily involved in that process [of founding and launching the NCHC]. It just really has been a part of my life, a big part of my life, and part of our families’ lives.
“So anytime there’s something that significant in your life, obviously it’s going to leave an impression on your life, and this one left a pretty memorable and positive impression that I’ll never forget.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.