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Quinnipiac's Bobcats hope to clinch the title at Frozen Four

Last Tuesday, as the Quinnipiac University men's ice hockey team prepared for its first game in this year's NCAA Frozen Four championship round, April 7-9 in Tampa, Florida, the school's president, John Lahey, addressed the squad of 28 in a closed-door locker room meeting.

"I congratulated them on being the best hockey team in America," he recalled the next day, alluding to the Bobcats' overall top seeding in the 16-team tournament, as well as their No. 1 national ranking for most of the season.

Scott Davidson #22 of the Quinnipiac University Bobcats celebrates his first-period goal against the Northeastern Huskies with his teammate Sam Anas #7 and Alex Miner-Barron #8 during an NCAA hockey game at Matthews Arena on Jan. 2, 2016 in Boston.
Richard T. Gagnon | Getty Images
Scott Davidson #22 of the Quinnipiac University Bobcats celebrates his first-period goal against the Northeastern Huskies with his teammate Sam Anas #7 and Alex Miner-Barron #8 during an NCAA hockey game at Matthews Arena on Jan. 2, 2016 in Boston.

In fact, this marks Quinnipiac's second Frozen Four appearance, having lost the 2013 title game to its archrival Yale, situated in New Haven, Connecticut, just 10 miles south of QU's sprawling Hamden campus. "Three years ago you were the Cinderella team at the Frozen Four," Lahey reminded the team. "Now you've got a big target on your backs, because you're recognized as one of elite programs in the country."

That's no small feat, considering that the private university, founded in 1929, started its men's hockey program in 1975 and moved to Division I in 1998 (its highly successful women's program began in 2001). Yale, by comparison, inaugurated American intercollegiate hockey in 1893. Quinnipiac's April 7 opponent, Boston College, is playing in its record 25th Frozen Four, having won five championships. "While we haven't gotten everybody to pronounce our name correctly, we've got the best hockey program in the country," Lahey crowed.

Indeed, outside of the hockey world, the school is mostly known for political polls, even if, when cited, its name is often mispronounced Kwin-uh-PEE-ack. For the record, officially it's KWIN-uh-pee-ack.

While winning its first Frozen Four title would fortify Quinnipiac's place on the map — and probably ease its pronunciation — a triumph in hockey represents just one part of an ambitious strategic plan Lahey laid out when he assumed the helm in 1987.

"We were a small, local college, with one campus and 1,900 students, 80 percent of them from Connecticut," Lahey said. "Today we have 10,000 students — 7,000 full-time undergraduates and 3,000 graduates — and 72 percent come from outside the state." Quinnipiac now spans across three campuses and boasts top-notch medical, communications and engineering schools and facilities.

Lahey's plan included taking its athletic programs — specifically men's and women's basketball, lacrosse and hockey — to Division I. But recognizing that faculty, trustees and the community might balk at spending money on sports at the expense of academics, he tactically concentrated his expansion efforts on the latter.

"We didn't make the commitment to sports until we strengthened the institution," he said, pointing to the construction of a health sciences building, a business school and new dormitories, as well as tripling the faculty. The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute was formally launched in 1994.

"We want the most talented kids we can get, but we will not bend our values and take a bad kid, character-wise." -Rand Pecknold, head coach of the Quinnipiac Bobcats men's ice hockey team

That same year, Rand Pecknold was hired as the head men's hockey coach. Only 25, he was still teaching at Hamden High to supplement his paltry $6,700 salary at Quinnipiac (he now reportedly earns around $300,000), which didn't have its own ice rink then. Even when the program went to Division I, the team practiced and played home games in nearby Northford; upon joining the Eastern College Athletic Conference in 2005, they spent a year skating at Yale's Ingalls Rink.

The Bobcats' fortunes dramatically changed when the school opened the $52 million TD Bank Sports Center in 2007. Lahey said that $30 million came from a fund-raising campaign, the balance from university coffers. The state-of-the-art complex, situated atop Hamden's York Hill and overlooking gorgeous Sleeping Giant State Park, features a 3,386-seat hockey arena and a separate 3,570-seat basketball arena.

Aside from being the envy of its ECAC brethren, the TD Center quickly turned into a recruiting magnet. "You couldn't do what we're doing without this facility," Pecknold insisted. "There's a wow factor when you walk in the door."

There are only 60 teams in Division I men's hockey, and Quinnipiac is still the new kid on the block. Most of the top players from high school, post-graduate academies and junior leagues, some already drafted by National Hockey League teams, go to the traditional college hockey powerhouses. Those include the other three teams in next week's Frozen Four — Boston College, Denver and North Dakota — as well as Midwestern stalwarts Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin. "If you grow up in the Northeast, it's BC, Boston University and Harvard," Pecknold said.

Quinnipiac has made its mark by recruiting players who might be undersized and not the most sought after. Pecknold insisted that he's more interested in character. "We want the most talented kids we can get, but we will not bend our values and take a bad kid, character-wise."

Junior forward Sam Anas, regarded throughout the league as the team's superstar, is a prime example. Only 5 feet 8 inches tall, he's known for his gritty, hard-nosed play on the ice. "We're very team-first," he said, "and our work ethic stands out. Every guy on that ice is battling. Whether it's practice or a game, everyone is working as hard as they can. It's the Quinnipiac way, as we say."

"It's a culture we've set," explained teammate Michael Garteig, a graduate student and the team's goalie. "We don't necessarily recruit the leading goal scorers from every league. It's not about that. It's about a system that guys fit into. That's what separates us from other teams."

Given BC's pedigree, many pundits are picking them to knock off Quinnipiac, which despite its top seeding is still considered an underdog — except in the Bobcats locker room. "We don't really look at it as being an underdog," Anas said. "But we know that we'll be playing against perennial powerhouses in the Frozen Four, so beating them would be great for our school and the program."

After all, Garteig adamantly pronounces, "Quinnipiac is a hockey school."


— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com.