The last time the NCAA Frozen Four was in Buffalo, an unheralded freshman from Austria became its breakout star, and set the stage for nine seasons with the Buffalo Sabres and more than 1,000 games in the NHL.
Thomas Vanek, then 19 years old, led Minnesota to the 2003 NCAA title at then-HSBC Arena with a dramatic overtime goal over Michigan in the semifinals and by scoring the game-winner in an eventual 5-1 win in the championship game over New Hampshire. Only a freshman at the time, Vanek finished the season with 31 goals and was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
"Buffalo was very unknown to most of us. As a college kid, you're just excited to have made it to the Frozen Four and once we got there, we had a ton of fun," Vanek, now with the Detroit Red Wings, recalled last week when the Sabres were in Detroit. "The building was loud. It was fun for us to play in it. On the day in between games, I remember we went up to Niagara Falls and got to see all of that. I had great memories there and then we all know how it ended up. I spent a long time there afterward, which is awesome because it's a great city."
The 2003 games here were excellent. Both semifinals were 3-2 decisions as Cornell entered the tournament top-ranked but was knocked off by New Hampshire in the first game before Vanek settled the Minnesota-Michigan contest after 8:55 of overtime. The final was tied at 1-1 before Minnesota broke it open with four goals in the final 12 minutes.
Minnesota became the first repeat titlist since Boston University won in 1971 and 1972. Denver went back-to-back in 2004 and 2005 and no one has done it since. Minnesota-Duluth is aiming for a repeat championship this week.
Vanek was the first freshman to lead Minnesota in scoring since 1970. His overtime goal beat Michigan goalie Al Montoya, who has played with six NHL teams and is still active with Bakersfield of the AHL.
"They were Michigan. Now you look at Minnesota-Michigan and maybe they're not so good right now. But back then, those were the programs," Vanek said. "So we knew we had to be at our best from goaltending out. We were good. They were tight battles and it ended up in overtime. I remember I came around the net, just kind of grabbed it from behind the net and swatted it in there. It was a lot of fun. That was such a big game for us."
The title game was a taut thriller for 40 minutes. Vanek said the dressing room during the second intermission was calm.
"We had such a good team. What helped me as a freshman back then was we had good older guys," he said. "Now I relate it to today's NHL. You have so many young skill guys but if you don't have guys who can lead them and tell you that's not the right thing to do ... that's what I remember as a freshman at that age thinking we're a good team but we've got to play the right way. We did it. We finally broke the tie."
Vanek broke the tie in the title game with 11:46 left and the Gophers were never headed.
"This whole game is confidence. You know me over the years and I'm a big believer in it," Vanek said. "I'm not afraid of standing up and saying I failed because there's many times I did fail and that's OK. That's how you get better.
"But at that time, I felt great. I thought I had a great season, scored the OT winner two days earlier so I felt great about my game. If you can feel like that, I think the game slows down."
The Gophers returned home to a championship celebration and fans chanted "one more year" at Vanek. He returned, playing for the Gophers in 2004 before turning pro with the Sabres and starring in Rochester during the NHL lockout season.
The draft in Nashville was two months after the Frozen Four and Vanek went to the Sabres at No. 5 in what has become one of the most historic first rounds in league history. Other players drafted included Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Dion Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, Brian Boyle and Corey Perry.
"I thought I was going to Columbus at No. 4, even that morning of the draft," Vanek said. "Buffalo wasn't on my mind really. People made it sound like I was going to Columbus but that didn't happen (as the BlueJackets took Nikolai Zherdev). I was more than happy about Buffalo. That's a building I had a ton of fun it and it worked out all right."
Sure did. Vanek scored 254 goals with the Sabres and is fifth on the franchise's all-time list.
"I've said it for years, even after I left. People have asked me, "How did you do it so long in Buffalo?' and I say 'It's awesome,' " Vanek said. "It's the greatest city ever. I loved it and I still miss it. But I think it's a city where you have to live and appreciate how good the communities are, the schools, the fans, the people. That's something I'll remember always."
Ice chips from 2003
Attendance for the three days was 56,098, the second most in history at the time, and tickets were sold out nearly a year in advance at $40 per game or $120 for the set. Calgary Flames defenseman Jordan Leopold was in the stands for the final. Leopold, the 2002 Hobey Baker winner and a national champion with the Gophers in 2002, booked a flight to Buffalo and got to town in time to see his team repeat its title.
"This is great. It's exciting for me," Leopold told Minnesota reporters that night. "I played with these guys. I'm here supporting them."
Like Vanek, Leopold didn't know Buffalo was in his future. Leopold played three seasons for Buffalo (2010-2013) as part of his eight-team NHL career.
After the game, there were disturbances in the home cities of both teams in the championship game. In Durham, N.H., police twice fired pepper gas into a bottle-throwing crowd of about 4,000 people who spilled into downtown. It took two hours for the crowd to disperse, and police made 90 arrests. There were 17 injuries that required treatment from the gas.
In Minneapolis, shop owners swept up broken glass and repaired storefronts in the university district after 11 people were arrested.
Key names from 2003 Frozen Four
Minnesota: Thomas Vanek, Paul Martin, Keith Ballard, goalie coach Robb Stauber (former Sabre), assistant coach Mike Guentzel (father of Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jake Guentzel)
Cornell: Matt Moulson
Michigan: Al Montoya
New Hampshire: Lanny Gare, nephew of former Sabres captain Danny Gare.