TAMPA — The Quinnipiac men's hockey team finished the 2008-09 season with as many wins as losses, and as longtime Bobcats coach Rand Pecknold recalls, everything was fine in Hamden, Conn.
After all, those were the kind of results — and perennial top 25 finishes — that were celebrated for a team that had moved into Division I competition only 11 years before that season.
But that summer, Pecknold realized fine just wasn't good enough anymore.
After years of working its way into hockey relevancy, Pecknold wanted Quinnipiac to be great. So during the 2009 offseason, he sat down with players and a whiteboard, and they brainstormed ways to get there.
"I think in my early years my mind-set on a Monday practice was, 'Ah, its college. They're beat up a little bit.' … I let it go. I think a lot of coaches do," Pecknold said. "And I just made a decision that we weren't going to do it anymore. It wasn't acceptable."
Changes ensued, including the intensity of practices. And soon, results followed.
Now Quinnipiac is a constant presence in the NCAA postseason, making the tournament every year since 2012. In 2013 the Bobcats made their first Frozen Four appearance, and three years later they're back again.
Quinnipiac (31-3-7) might now be on the hockey map, but compared to the other three teams in this week's Frozen Four — Denver, North Dakota and Boston College combine for 62 Frozen Four appearances to the Bobcats' two — the No. 1-ranked Bobcats are still far from boasting a similar storied tradition.
This week, they plan on taking their first steps toward changing that.
"I think the biggest role our seniors have is to really make sure that all the other players are focused on the game rather than all the excitement," said senior forward Soren Jonzzon, who was a freshman on the 2012-13 Frozen Four squad.
"In the end, we're here to play a hockey game — and hopefully two hockey games — and we just gotta make sure that everyone's got their focus on that."
Thanks in part to Pecknold's dedication to excellence, Quinnipiac's first national championship is now a reasonable goal. But 21 years ago, the Bobcats' success was measured in much different terms.
Pecknold took over the program in 1994, when the Bobcats competed at the Division II level and were forced to practice at midnight after he traveled 70 miles from his day job as a school teacher.
"That first year was tough. It was all survival. And I think I won one game," he said.
"I was like, 'What? What am I doing, for nothing?' "
Current Quinnipiac senior Travis St. Denis was a 16-year-old from British Columbia when he committed to play collegiate hockey for the Bobcats. It was a decision he made because former Quinnipiac players Kellen and Connor Jones grew up five minutes from his home in Canada. At the time, St. Denis knew nothing about the region of the United States he was moving to, let alone the university he would be representing.
"To be honest," St. Denis said, "I committed and I didn't even know where Connecticut was on a map."
Now, it's a bit tougher to overlook the Bobcats.
Quinnipiac started the season on a 17-game unbeaten streak, the longest in Division I hockey since Colorado College went 18 games in 1995-96. The Bobcats have the third-most power-play goals in the NCAA (45), and in seven postseason games this year they lead all schools in goals (30), assists (47), points (77) and power-play goals (eight).
"You look at the success we've had over the past four or five years, that kind of puts us on the map, coming to tournaments like these," said St. Denis, who has 22 goals and 24 assists on the season. "It's very exciting for us, and it's definitely very exciting for our school."
It might be the Frozen Four, but when Quinnipiac's players arrived in Tampa on Tuesday, they were greeted with a warm welcome. When the Bobcats stepped off the plane, there was music playing and people cheering, the kind of things freshman defenseman Chase Priskie's teammates told him to expect.
"They've dropped hints here and there, but the one recurring thing that a lot of the guys say is just not to take it for granted," Priskie said before Quinnipiac's arrival. "It's such a priceless experience that may only happen once in your life."
But if Quinnipiac has anything to say about it, that trip down the red carpet will come to be as familiar as the ice itself.
Contact Kelly Parsons at [email protected] Follow @_kellyparsons.