The result is what you'll see in South Philly next week, when NCAA logos are painted onto the Wells Fargo Center ice and thousands of fans from the Northeast and Midwest flock to the stadium complex and downtown hotels. Philadelphia's first Frozen Four, which begins with Thursday's semifinals and culminates in the national title game 2 days later, will feature Minnesota, Boston College, Union College and North Dakota. But it will also serve for many in the city as an introduction to big-time college hockey.
The NCAA has in recent years branched out from oft-used Frozen Four locales such as Boston, Colorado Springs and St. Paul, Minn., opting to also mix in host cities such as Anaheim (1999), Tampa (2012 and 2016) and Pittsburgh (2013). The July 2010 announcement that Philadelphia would host in 2014 might have been met with skepticism - Princeton fields the closest Division I program - but the Division I men's ice hockey committee, made up of one rep from each conference, ultimately liked what Philly could offer the sport's loyal, traveling fan base.
"It was something different. It was something new," said NCAA associate director of championships Kristin Fasbender, a liaison to the committee that makes recommendations for the championship sites. Fasbender, who is privy to the committee's conversations, added: "While Philly may have seemed a little bit out of the box at the time we did the bid, I don't think it was very far out of the box at all."
Peter Luukko, then president of Comcast-Spectacor and the Flyers, along with Global Spectrum's president, John Page, and general managers Tim Murphy (2002-11) and Matthew Homan (2011-present) were among those heavily involved in bringing the event here. The Philadelphia Sports Congress, led by executive director Larry Needle, and the ECAC also played a part.
A bid was entered in 2005 for one of the 2009-11 Frozen Fours, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) acting as Philadelphia's host institution. Though one of six finalists, the city's bid was not rewarded. The folks from Philly regrouped, connected with the ECAC, and tried again.
Luukko, who unexpectedly resigned from his post at Comcast-Spectator in December, said by phone this week that the group learned from its failed bid, which he thinks made the collegiate hockey community more aware of Philadelphia's status as a growing hockey market.
"The market is more than just the Philadelphia Flyers," Luukko said. "Ed Snider brought hockey to Philadelphia, but now it has emerged as a true hockey market."
Bringing the Frozen Four to Philadelphia, Luukko said, could be a difference-maker in continuing to grow interest in the sport at the youth levels. Part of the city's pitch to the NCAA, he said, was to show the number of area kids who had in recent years gone on to play at the junior and collegiate levels.
"This," Luukko said of the Frozen Four, "will just speed up that process."
This season, more than 50 Division I hockey players hailed from Eastern Pennsylvania or South Jersey, according to numbers provided by Comcast-Spectacor. College hockey's biggest star, Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau, hails from Carneys Point, N.J.
"I think an event like this is a tremendous opportunity for us to see growth in the sport," said Comcast-Spectacor's vice president for rink management and development, Pat Ferrill, also the president of the Team Comcast Youth Hockey Club. "It's so unique."
The Wells Fargo Center's experience hosting big events certainly didn't hurt Philly's bid. In addition to the NCAA women's basketball Final Four in 2000, it has hosted men's NCAA Tournament games in four seasons and was the home of the 2011 NCAA wrestling championships. As far as non-NCAA events go, the arena has seen an NBA All-Star Game, the X Games, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the 2000 Republican National Convention.
"With the fantastic arena that we have and really kind of an overall package as the city - when you look at our hotels and attraction and geography and the size of the media market, all the things that we can offer an event and its fans - I think we obviously convinced them that Philadelphia was the place to be," said Needle, who has worked on hundreds of bids since 1991, when he started at Philadelphia Sports Congress. "And I think a lot of it also had to do with the success we've had in other NCAA events."
At the time Philadelphia was announced as a future host, the Wells Fargo Center, which opened in 1996, had never hosted a Division I hockey game. That changed last year, when the building housed the first of two contests between Vermont and Penn State, which just last year moved up to Division I. Both games sold out and the series will be an annual game, Comcast-Spectacor spokesman Ike Richman said.
The Frozen Four has a loyal following with fans who go to it every year, no matter the event's location. To that end, don't be surprised to see people sporting North Dakota sweaters in line to see the Liberty Bell or those with Boston College caps posing for pictures with the Rocky statue.
And depending on how everything goes next week, don't rule out this being the first of multiple Frozen Fours in Philly. The city, with Penn State serving as the host institution, also entered a bid for the most recent cycle (2015-18), awarded in December to Boston, Tampa, St. Paul and Chicago.
"I think there's every chance," Needle said, "that if we put on the kind of event that we expect next week that they will certainly be back in the not-too-distant future."