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March 28, 2013

by Kyle Kujawa -

NCAA hockey is coming to Grand Rapids, as Van Andel Arena will host the West Regional of the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament this Friday and Saturday! Four of college hockey’s top teams -- Minnesota, North Dakota, Niagara and Yale -- will compete in West Michigan to secure a spot in next month’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, and fans can purchase a two-day, three-game pass for just $65 by clicking here. Several Griffins have participated in the NCAA tournament, and we’ll highlight their experiences throughout March.

Not many players have done as well in the NCAA tournament as defenseman Brett Skinner. In fact, in 17 years of the Grand Rapids Griffins, only one other player comes close to matching Skinner’s collegiate résumé.

Skinner never experienced a loss in the tournament. His Denver Pioneers didn’t make it when he was a freshman, but as a sophomore and junior, they captured the national championship. Only goalie Blaine Lacher, a Griffin for 11 games during their inaugural 1996-97 season, can boast two NCAA titles. But his successes, while a member of the Lake Superior State Lakers, didn’t come in back-to-back seasons (1992 and 1994).

“When people say anyone can win it, we were that kind of story,” said Skinner, who was victorious with Denver in 2004 and 2005. “We weren’t necessarily expected to win.”

Denver became the eighth school to win back-to-back titles in the history of the tournament, which dates back to 1948. Championship No. 1 was especially memorable, according to Skinner, as his Pioneers went head-to-head against a Maine team backstopped by former Griffins goaltender Jimmy Howard.

“We ended the game with a 6-on-3 against and won the game 1-0, so that was a pretty different way to do it,” said Skinner. “I had my Dad there. We had such a great group of guys; it was a really special time.”

Just getting to that stage was memorable for Skinner. Although Denver is one of the most successful programs in college hockey history, with seven championship banners hanging from its rafters, it wasn’t considered an overwhelming favorite either season. The team did have an advantage, though, with a home-friendly location for their regional in 2004.

“I remember the excitement of playing in Colorado Springs, which is close to Denver,” said Skinner. “We had a lot of fans, so it was a great atmosphere. We had a tough game against Miami to open it, which gets overlooked, and then we played North Dakota, who was tied for first in the country at the time.

“We ended up scoring late in the game to get to the Frozen Four,” he continued. “Even winning the regional was exciting, and then to get to the Frozen Four was a great experience.”

Three of Denver’s four games that year were decided by one goal, two of them by 1-0 decisions. The following season, only one NCAA tournament game was decided that closely, but the road to the championship was by no means easy.

“The way that we put it, each team had their own identity,” recalled Skinner. “We didn’t think about it as defending [the title], we thought about in the second year that we hadn’t accomplished anything with that team. We had a big freshman class that played a pretty big role.

“I think we had the better team the second time, so maybe as far as that went, it would have appeared to be a little easier. But we were pretty hot the second half of the first year as well, so it’s tough to compare. Both years were really special, especially with the close group of guys we had.”

After earning his two championship rings, Skinner decided to go out on a high note and turn professional with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. The experience provided him memories that he’ll treasure forever, and he has no regrets at missing out on a chance to win three consecutive titles.

“Looking back, that would have been something special, but it just wasn’t in the cards,” he said. “The best part of winning is the week after, with the trophy. We got the chance to take it all around the city and show it off. It lets the community be part of the championship as well.”

Now a member of the Griffins after signing with the team in January, Skinner notes that the atmosphere in the locker room reminds him of his successful college days at Denver. He hopes that his gut feeling is right when he thinks this team can make a run deep into the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs.

“We not only combine the skill that we had, but the attention to detail in our own zone as well,” Skinner said. “Both teams are coached really well. Off the ice, we were a close-knit group, and you can sense that in the dressing room here. Once the playoffs start, you’re battling for the guy next to you. And that’s really important.”

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