Lightning star Marty St. Louis has been in his share of gut-wrenching, emotional games during his NHL career, with a thin line separating elation from devastation.
To the wing, the Frozen Four, the NCAA championship that comes to Tampa this week, is a perfect storm of that excitement wrapped into one with the pagentry of bands and fans making it unique.
"It's one game, do or die. It's like three Game 7s," St. Louis said. "It's pretty exciting, especially when you get close games. You see the kids giving it everything they have. It's their Stanley Cup."
St. Louis has won a Stanley Cup but still laments he never played for a national title while with Vermont. He helped lead the Catamounts to their first Frozen Four in 1996. St. Louis, ex-Lightning forward Eric Perrin and Bruins goalie Tim Thomas took Colorado College to double-overtime in the semifinals in Cincinnati — after a two-hour delay.
"The guy putting net pegs in drilled too deep, and it flooded the ice," St. Louis said. "We played on a pond pretty much."
Colorado College took advantage of an apparent hand pass to score the winner — before video review was in effect — making it a difficult memory for St. Louis.
"It was stunning how painful it was when he talks about it," Lightning assistant general manager Tom Kurvers said. "He's (upset) about the call. Someone took something away from him. It matters."
With the Frozen Four beginning Thursday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Times chatted with several current and former NHL players about their experience in the event.
Marty Turco, Bruins goaltender
1995: Detroit, lost in semifinal
1996: Cincinnati, won title
1997: Milwaukee, lost in semifinal
1998: Boston, won title
Turco could be considered the godfather of the Frozen Four, having participated in it four consecutive seasons. He experienced the Stanley Cup final the following year with the Stars, but after 11 pro seasons, he's still nostalgic about his Frozen Four days.
"It's as intense as you can imagine," Turco said.
Turco said he cherished all four appearances for different reasons. The triple-overtime loss to Maine in the semifinals in his freshman season was an "eye-popping experience," and the 1996 title — beating the Colorado College team that beat St. Louis' Vermont squad — ended the school's 32-year drought.
But the Wolverines' 1998 championship, a 3-2 overtime victory over Boston College at Boston's Fleet Center, took the cake.
"That was the ultimate for many reasons, not just being my last game in that jersey, but to be at the Fleet Center, against that team, only a short ride from campus," Turco said. "It was daunting. We were seemingly against the world; only had 1,000 of our fans among the 20,000. The odds were stacked against us.
"It was an unbelievable experience to come away victorious, silencing some crowds."
Tom Kurvers, Lightning assistant GM
1984: Lake Placid, N.Y., lost in final
Kurvers' season was sparked by heartbreak just before Christmas, when the school's athletic director, Ralph Romano, died of a heart attack at a Bulldogs game, right behind the bench.
"We had some magic dust on our team and went on a roll we had never experienced before," Kurvers said.
After beating North Dakota in overtime in the semifinals, Duluth led Bowling Green 4-2 lead with 10 minutes left.
"I thought we were going to win," Kurvers said.
But Bowling Green tied it on a fluke goal, a dump-in that bounced off a seam in the boards and out in front of the net. The game ended up going four overtimes with Bowling Green scoring off a three-on-two and Kurvers on the ice.
"I don't know if you could have enough energy to be upset. We were just drained, wiped out tired," Kurvers said. "Painful loss. Fantastic memory."
Bill Watson, former Blackhawks forward
1985: Detroit, lost in final
Watson's Frozen Four semifinal against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was star-studded.
Teammates included Brett Hull (third in NHL history in goals) and Norm Maciver (500 NHL games as a defenseman) while RPI had Daren Puppa (former Lightning goalie) and Adam Oates (sixth in NHL history in assists).
The game lived up to the hype, going three overtimes before RPI pulled it out en route to a national title. Watson believed they had won in double overtime, passing it to a teammate whose shot tipped off Puppa and clanked off the cross bar.
"That's a moment that's frozen in time," Watson said. "That's how close it comes."
Ryan Shannon, Lightning forward
2004: Boston, lost in semifinal
Shannon said you really have to be lucky to make the Frozen Four, and that's what it took for his Eagles.
"We had our captain of the team score a highlight-reel goal — batted the puck out of the air while he was in the air — to get us to the Frozen Four," Shannon said. "So it was full of magic."
Boston College then had a home game of sorts in the Fleet Center against Maine. Shannon scored the tying goal early in the second. But the Black Bears scored early in the third then held on for a 2-1 win.
"It's life or death. You fight and you fight and you fight," Shannon said. "Every shift matters. There's great motivating speeches from coaches."
Mike Commodore, Lightning defenseman
2000: Providence, R.I., won title
Commodore was disappointed after consecutive early round exits in the NCAA Tournament in 1998-99. But in 2000, the Fighting Sioux made a memorable run, advancing to the title game against Boston College.
"I remember being basically right in Boston's backdoor; ton of Boston College fans," Commodore said. "Basically, it was a home game for them."
North Dakota trailed 2-1 entering the third but scored three in a row to claim the championship 4-2.
"It was a great way to end my college career," Commodore said. "It's something I'll never forget."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]