Although hard to believe, little more than 70 years ago, hockey reached such a small audience in the U.S. that only about 24 colleges featured competitive men’s ice hockey teams. For that reason, it took the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) about 40 years to finally hold a championship tournament. The NCAA had been formed as early as 1906 and took its name in 1910, but it was not until the 1947-48 season that the NCAA had hockey teams conform to regulations.
The first NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament was held in March 1948. Although few in number (thanks in part to the expense of maintaining indoor rinks), the college clubs had rivalries and wanted to compete for the title of best collegiate squad in the U.S. A committee selected four teams, the top two eastern and the top two western teams based on record and opposition strength, to participate. The Dartmouth Indians (with a 20-2-0 record) and the Boston College Eagles (14-4-0) represented the east, while the Michigan Wolverines (18-2-1) and the Colorado College Tigers (19-7-0) topped the west. As this was a single elimination competition, they would only need three games, the fewest ever played for the NCAA tournament. All of the games were played at Broadmoor Ice Palace in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The first game, on March 18, featured the first eastern seed, Dartmouth, and the second western seed, Colorado College. Dartmouth advanced with a victory of 8-4.
On March 19, the first western seed, Michigan, played the second eastern seed, Boston College. The game had to go into overtime, which was not sudden-death, and lasted three hours. As the Lansing State Journal crowed, the “favored Michigan Wolverines had to go all out to subdue Boston college 6-4 in a rousing overtime fray Friday night to reach the finals.” The NCAA tournament would not feature another overtime game until 1954.
Newspapers in New Hampshire and Michigan praised the coaches for getting the Indians and Wolverines to the finals. Dartmouth’s coach, Eddie Jeremiah, had a winning average of .950 since 1938. He led the team to streaks of 32 victories and then 34 victories. Since he returned to the team in 1945 (after serving with the Navy), Dartmouth had won 100 games. Michigan’s Vic Heyliger had played for Michigan and then, upon graduation, for the Chicago Blackhawks. When his NHL career was cut short due to a “serious throat ailment,” he returned to Michigan to earn his masters’ degree in physical education. According to the Detroit Free Press, “He authored a history on the origin and development of hockey as part of the work toward his degree. It is regarded as one of the most comprehensive treatises ever compiled on the game.” He coached four seasons at the University of Illinois before becoming Michigan’s coach in 1943. He also “worked untiringly and against high odds to gain recognition for college hockey. The Michigan coach was a prime mover in the organization of a college hockey association and the staging of an annual tournament.”
The first NCAA championship game was held at 8:15 on March 20, 1948. At the end of the first period, Michigan and Dartmouth stood tied at 2-2, having alternated goals. Within the first 11 minutes of the second, Dartmouth had scored twice more. Then Dartmouth failed to find the net for the remaining 29 minutes. Instead, the Wolverines “fought from behind” scoring twice in the last five minutes of the period. However, the referees had disallowed the tying goal “because a penalty box official had piped his whistle on the play.” So the teams went to the locker rooms thinking the score remained 4-3. As the Nashua Telegraph summarized, “But the NCAA rules committee overruled them and gave the Wolverines the point.” That rejuvenated Michigan and paralyzed Dartmouth so that the Wolverines “completely overpowered the Indians in the closing stanza.” Michigan doubled its score thanks to Wally Gacek completing a hat trick and assisting on three other goals. Wally Grant had assisted on all of Gacek’s goals and scored two of his own. Michigan won the first NCAA championship with a score of 8-4.
Michigan’s win was unsurprising considering they had Canadian players and had defeated Toronto, the Canadian champions. The school had already won the Rose Bowl in football and the Big Nine in basketball. Considering Coach Heyliger’s involvement in establishing the tournament, the Detroit Free Press felt, “It is fitting that his team took the crown the first year the event was held.” Heyliger kept on winning championships, with his six as the record high for a coach. Michigan also holds the record with nine championships. The Broadmoor Ice Palace in Colorado Springs, Colorado continued to host the tournament throughout the first ten years and has hosted the most of any venue. The NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament remained a competition between four teams through 1976 and, since 2003, has grown to feature 16 teams.
- “Michigan Plays for Hockey Title,” Lansing State Journal, 20 March 1948, p. 12.
- “Dartmouth Loses in Hockey Final,” Boston Globe, 21 March 1948, p. 30.
- “Michigan Over Dartmouth for Hockey Crown,” Nashua Telegraph, 22 March 1948, p. 9.
- Tommy Devine, “Vic Heyliger Brings Fourth Champion to Michigan,” Detroit Free Press, 22 March 1948, p. 21.
- “Michigan, Given Goal Between Periods, Goes On to Beat Dartmouth in NCAA Final,” Boston Globe, 22 March 1948, p. 16.
- Leonard M. Fowle, “Dartmouth Grip on N.E. Ice Peak Seen Endangered,” Boston Globe, 23 March 1948, p. 36.
- Jack Durant, “New England Sports Back Alley,” Nashua Telegraph, 25 March 1948, p. 19.