If Colorado College can win a pair of games
this weekend at Xcel Energy Center, it would be the first
outright WCHA playoff title in the school's 70 seasons of
college pucks. But it would be a kind of old news for Tigers
senior defenseman Jack Hillen, who won a Minnesota state
high school title there in 2002, as a sophomore at Academy
of Holy Angels in the Minneapolis suburbs.
Jack Hillen has had championship experience at the
XCel Energy Center before, but now has the opportunity
to share that with his college teammates.
Last week, Inside College Hockey named Hillen
the league's Breakthrough Player of 2007-08. The medium-sized
blueliner had a nearly four-fold increase in assists this
season en route to his team gaining their second MacNaughton
Cup in his four seasons at CC (they shared the league crown
with Denver in 2005).
As Hillen packed his hockey bag for a return
trip to his home state this week, he spoke with Jess Myers
of INCH about his final season of college hockey, and about
the fact that some teams use the term "climbing a mountain"
as a figurative term for working together to win a title,
but it's much more literal for the Tigers.
Inside College Hockey: What were
your college options, and why did you pick CC?
Jack Hillen: I committed
right after my junior year of high school ended, so I committed
pretty early. My options were either here or Harvard. Those
were the two teams that were looking at me. I came out here
on an unofficial visit. They were number one at the time,
with (Peter) Sejna and (Tom) Preissing and (Marty) Sertich
on the team. I hung out with Sertich and Weston Tardy, who's
a Duluth kid. I loved the guys and I loved the atmosphere
down here. So I went home, thought it over for a couple
days, then called Coach Owens and told him I wanted to play
here. I really didn't even need to think about it. It only
took one unofficial visit and I fell in love with it.
INCH: How does CC's famed "block
plan" work academically?
JH: You take one class at
a time, for three-and-a-half weeks. You get out of class
on Wednesday and a lot of kids go skiing. Then you start
a new class on Monday.
INCH: In March, if you're on the
hockey team, do they allow you to count "the playoffs"
as one of those three-week blocks?
JH: Well, right now we're
on spring break, but no, they don't do that.
INCH: What's your biggest strength
as a player, and why such a huge jump in assists this season?
JH: My biggest strength is
skating. I've taken skating lessons since I was six years
old. My feet are probably my biggest asset. I don't know
why I'm getting more assists. I've been more patient with
the puck and I've also been feeding the puck up a little
bit more on my breakouts. Making a better first breakout
pass helps get some assists.
WCHA Final Five Capsules
1 Colorado College Record:
28-9-1 (21-6-1 WCHA) Tiger Note:
At the Final Five, CC historically struggles on Saturday
night, having lost in the championship game in 1995
(to Wisconsin), 2003 (to Minnesota) and 2005 (to Denver).
But the Tigers are hot stuff on Saturday afternoon,
going 6-1 in the tournament's third-place game. How CC Wins: No matter which team wins
on Thursday night (Minnesota or St. Cloud State) the
Tigers will be the home team in sweater color only on
Friday, facing a Minnesota-based team in the shadow
of the Minnesota State Capitol, in front of a huge crowd,
most of which will be rooting against the regular season
champs. So being ready to play in the first period,
and getting the first goal, is vital. Otherwise the
crowd gets going, the blood starts pumping, and Richard
Bachman (who has never played like a freshman) might
get a little rattled by the surroundings.
No. 2 North Dakota Record: 25-9-4 (18-7-3 WCHA) Fighting
Sioux Note: Friday afternoon's meeting between
the Fighting Sioux and Denver in St. Paul will mark
just the third time those teams have faced off in the
Final Five. The Pioneers have won both of the previous
meetings, including the 1999 title game at Target Center
in Minneapolis. How UND Wins: For
the Fighting Sioux to continue their red-hot ways, the
key is to keep their heads about them. There were penalties
and scraps aplenty a few weeks ago when they played
the Pioneers in Grand Forks, and there's sure to be
some bad blood left over when the meet on Friday. The
fans know that, the teams know that, and most importantly,
the officials know that, and the folks in stripes will
be primed to keep things under control on the league's
biggest stage. So keep it clean, don't get caught up
in crap after the whistle, and rely on the fact that
you're the deepest team in the field.
3 Denver Record: 24-13-1
(16-11-1 WCHA) Pioneer Note: A
trip to St. Paul is not a sure thing for the Pioneers,
having been upset in the opening round of the playoffs
in 2004, 2006 and 2007, but when they get to the Xcel
Energy Center, the Pios usually do good things. In their
last two trips to the Final Five (2002 and 2005) the
Pioneers have flown home with the Broadmoor Trophy. How DU Wins: The Pioneers spent a floundering
few weeks wondering how they'd replace Brock Trotter's
offense, then seemed to realize that with a former NCAA
champ in goal and the likes of Patrick Mullen, Andrew
Thomas and Chris Butler on the blue line, maybe offense
was the wrong area of focus. The Pioneers' most notable
recent successes have come via a defense-first approach.
That's different than the way they were winning 17 of
their first 21 games this season, but these Pioneers
are a different team, and the playoffs are a different
No. 5 St. Cloud
State Record: 19-14-5
(12-12-4WCHA) Husky Note: Since
leaving his long-time assistant coaching post at Minnesota
in 2005 to take over the reins of his alma mater, Huskies
head coach Bob Motzko is 5-1-3 versus his former employer,
including a win and a tie earlier this season. The Huskies
and Gophers last Final Five meeting was that 8-7 overtime
shootout SCSU won in the 2006 semifinals How
SCSU Wins: After watching their amazing power
play work its magic a few times earlier this season,
we were convinced that the Huskies' success begins and
ends with offense, especially when there's an opponent
in the penalty box. But last weekend's first round sweep
changed that perception just a bit, when goalie Jase
Weslosky shut out Wisconsin one night and turned aside
46 Badger shots in the win the next night. That man-advantage
unit is still either really scary or really fun to watch
(depending on where your loyalties lay) but the Huskies
are becoming a more complete team at just the right
time of year.
7 Minnesota Record: 17-15-9
(9-12-7 WCHA Golden Gopher Note:
Minnesota has been in a school-record 15 overtime games
this season, and has (appropriately) tied a school record
with nine ties. That number of ties would've risen to
12 if last weekend's trio of games, all of which were
still knotted after five minutes of OT, had been regular
season contests. How UM Wins: The
regular season meetings between the Gophers and St.
Cloud State marked a turning point for Don Lucia's team
defensively, as goaltender Jeff Frazee struggled, and
rookie Alex Kangas took over the job for good. Recently,
that's looked like the right move, as Kangas has backstopped
a 5-2-2 run, and looked unfazed despite playing the
equivalent of nearly five games in three days, before
a hostile crowd, with their season likely on the line,
last weekend at Minnesota State. The Gophers have sought
consistent offense all season, and frankly are still
searching, so the kid between the pipes has to keep
up the good work if Minnesota is to keep winning.
INCH: Were the early-season trips
to New Hampshire then North Dakota a defining time for your
JH: Those were tough trips.
I thought we should've won at least one game in New Hampshire,
if not two. We were winning in both of them and it slipped
away from us. It's really hurting us right now in the PairWise,
coming back to bite us a little bit. Going to North Dakota
we really got smoked in the first game, thoroughly out-played.
It was a real test for us because we'd lost three in a row
then and we were wondering where we were as a team. To come
back and play well Saturday night really built confidence
for our entire team. To do that on the road was huge.
INCH: Some teams look to early
season road trips to build unity. Did it have that affect
on your club?
JH: This team has been really
close all year, so I don't think it brought us together
any more than we already were. All the guys voluntarily
came back here last summer, worked out here, climbed Pikes
Peak together, and did a lot of good team-building exercises.
We've been really close all year so going on the road may
have helped, but we were really close already.
INCH: The question about your
team heading into this season was in goal. What did you
know about Richard Bachman, and at what point did you know
he was going to be the difference-maker that's he's been?
JH: I didn't know that much
about him, other than that he'd played a few years in Cedar
Rapids in the USHL and he was a pretty big-time recruit.
We came into the season thinking that Drew (O'Connell) was
going to get an opportunity and they did split the first
couple series to see what would happen. But I knew when
Bachman played against the University of Minnesota and was
so unfazed by anything that happened to him. He was so confident
in the net, and you can tell that nothing rattles him, if
he gives up a goal or gets run over by a player, he just
bounces right back up. When I saw that first series against
Minnesota I though if he could play like that, we're going
to have a chance to do something. And he's played like that
all year. He really only had one kind of disappointing game
all year, against Michigan Tech, then he bounced right back
and played great the next weekend.
INCH: The way your team played
at home all season was a key part of winning the WCHA title,
but were you also sending a message about the NCAA playoffs?
JH: Definitely. We've had
a theme all year that we need to play well on our home ice
because we don't really need to leave this state to accomplish
our main goal. We've tried to protect our home ice and establish
something good here because we know regionals are coming
up and it's important to get back to the Frozen Four.
INCH: Some say it's bad luck to
win the MacNaughton Cup if you want to win the NCAA title.
Are you scared of the curse?
JH: We haven't won a national
championship since '57, so I don't think it's that much
of a curse. I think it's a huge honor and achievement to
win the MacNaughton Cup because you have to play well the
whole year. It just goes to show how consistent our team
was all year and how much we had to earn it. North Dakota
came on strong and they're on fire right now. And Denver
was so hot at the beginning, we questioned if they were
ever going to lose a game, but we kept going along and kept
winning games. So hopefully we can catch a little lighting
in a bottle here and win four games at the end of the season.
INCH: The Cup is a heavy piece
of hardware, isn't it?
JH: It is. I picked it up
and I was like, 'Whoa! Did they really need to make the
conference trophy that big?' But it's cool. It's an unbelievable
INCH: What's your major?
JH: I'm majoring in economics
and I'm pretty much done, I just need to finish my thesis.
That's basically done too, I just need to write my introduction
and hand it in. It's going well.
INCH: Have you thought about a
hockey career beyond college?
JH: I was not drafted, and
really my main focus is on this year, doing something special
with this team. You only get this opportunity once, so I'm
just kind of living in the moment right now. But what ever
happens after the season, happens.
INCH: You and a few of your teammates
played at the Xcel Energy Center in the 2005 Final Five,
but are you kind of the team's unofficial guide to St. Paul,
having already won a championship on that ice sheet?
JH: No, but I do feel at
home sometimes out there because I played in three state
tournaments there. I feel pretty confident because I've
played a bunch of games there. I love playing there, especially
when the building is packed and fans are rooting against
you. Once in high school we were playing Roseville and it
seemed like the whole building was against us. There were
about 100 Holy Angels fans. But I love that atmosphere,
and it's such a fun place to play. Everybody in Minnesota
loves their hockey, and it's exciting to go back there.
INCH: Having spent four years
in Colorado, do you see the game growing there, similar
JH: Hockey is definitely
growing and getting big out here, but you kind of miss Minnesota
sometimes with all of the coverage and exposure hockey gets,
even in high school.
INCH: Who keeps it loose on your
team, in the room?
JH: Jake Gannon will speak
up when he has to, he's not shy. But he's more the quiet
practical jokester. He's got a memory like an elephant and
will remember anything you say. You've got to be careful
around him. He'll bring up something I said my sophomore
year and give me a little ribbing about it. He's definitely
the jokester on the team, he and Drew O'Connell. You watch
what you say around those two.
INCH: In terms of creating offense
from the blue line, what's your favorite play?
JH: I really don't take many
slap shots. I like to walk across the blue line and try
to make a move on a forward coming out to block a shot,
to create a different angle to get a shot through. Sometimes
I like to pull it back with a little backhand pull, or fake
a shot, wake around him, then put a wrist shot on net. That's
my favorite type of play, when a forward is coming out to
INCH: In 2004, en route to the
NCAA title, Denver won a regional in your building. Is there
talk of paying the Pioneers back by winning the Frozen Four
JH: Scott Thauwald was the
only member of the team who was here then, so nobody here
has animosity toward Denver for that reason. We have a lot
of respect for Denver. It's just a really healthy rivalry.
So we don't need to pay them back, we just want to win it
A variety of sources were utilized in
the compilation of this report. Jess Myers can be reached