Phantoms have great memories of NCAA tournament

Photo: Mick Hatten/The Rink Live

📝 by Bob Rotruck | AHL On The Beat

College hockey’s own mayhem in March is underway with opening round games in four regionals and 16 teams hoping to advance to the 2022 Frozen Four in Boston.

While the Lehigh Valley Phantoms are on the road, PPL Center will again be hosting the Midwest Regional at PPL Center which will include the #1 overall seed Michigan Wolverines as well as the American International Yellowjackets, Quinnipiac Bobcats and St. Cloud State Huskies.

The Phantoms have several players with NCAA tournament experience including Wade Allison (Western Michigan), Jackson Cates (Minnesota-Duluth), Adam Clendening (Boston University), Charlie Gerard (Minnesota State), Alex Kile (Michigan) and Tanner Laczynski (Ohio State).

It’s almost a guarantee that some of the players at PPL Center and the other regionals (Loveland, Colo.; Worcester, Mass.; Albany, N.Y.) will become future AHL players. Some of those players could even be joining AHL teams within the next week.

Tanner Laczysnski was at the historic first-ever NCAA tournament games in Allentown in 2018. He scored the overtime winning goal against Michigan in the Big Ten Championship game and the then-sophomore talent helped lead the streaking Buckeyes to back-to-back wins against Princeton and Denver to propel Ohio State to the Frozen Four for the first time in 20 years.

“It was unbelievable,” Laczynski said. “Obviously for us coming here and getting a chance to go to the Frozen Four and beating one of the top teams in the country (and defending national champions) in Denver. That was pretty special for us and a big opportunity for our program.”

Laczynski was already very aware that his future as a professional hockey player would likely be in the very same building where he was playing those NCAA tournament games in Allentown. He had been selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the sixth round of the NHL Entry Draft in 2016.

“For me personally, thinking of one day playing in this rink… that was an exciting part as well. Coming here and seeing the city and where I would be hopefully playing. Definitely an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Alex Kile is a former captain of the Michigan Wolverines and absolutely bleeds Michigan Blue. Kile wanted to play hockey at Michigan his whole life. His alma mater defeated AIC on Friday night to advance to the regional final on Sunday.

“I’m so excited,” Kile said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited to watch Michigan. They have a legitimate chance to win it all. We’ll never see a talented team like this ever again in college hockey. It’s just a unique situation. It’s crazy. Whoever is recruiting at Michigan, I know (head coach) Mel (Pearson) does a lot of it but the assistants do it too…they’re doing a great job.”

Jackson Cates won a national championship with Minnesota-Duluth in 2019. (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

It was also fun for Kile earlier this week to skate in practice at PPL Center while the ice had already been prepared with the center-ice logo for the upcoming NCAA hockey. It definitely provided an early NCAA Tournament vibe inside the team’s home in the Lehigh Valley.

“It reminded me of (tournament games in) Cincinnati when we played there for sure. All the boards are white now but they’ll have all the names of the college there for the game. I feel this rink is perfect for a regional tournament.”

For Michigan to win it all, they might have to get past another #1 seed in Minnesota State-Mankato. Charlie Gerard’s team is considered to be a top contender for the title along with Michigan.

“Mankato’s always got a place in my heart,” Gerard said. “Great program. Great coaching staff. And great guys there. There’s still a couple guys I played with when I was there. Obviously I’m rooting for them and they’re having a great year.”

But Gerard knows as well as anyone else who’s been in the tournament that it isn’t always lined up for the favorites to make it through. The Mavericks were upset in the first round by fourth-seeded Providence College in the 2019 tournament. The heartbreak is real.

“We were in Providence and it’s just a bit of a bigger stage and every little thing matters and every mistake matters,” Gerard said. “You win and move on, or you lose and you’re done. It’s definitely tough. But the atmosphere was great and it was a cool experience to play in those games.”

Charlie Gerard, a Cleveland-area native, also has a connection with current Phantoms teammate Tanner Laczynski: Charlie’s brother, Freddy, was linemates with Laczynski with the Buckeyes.

“Charlie’s always joking,” Laczynski said. “‘Do you think we’d be on a line if I went to Ohio State? You think me and my brother would be on a line with you?’ Oh yeah, I’d be in between the Gerard brothers. It’s fun to think about.”

The connections and bonds for the college players continue well past college.

Laczynski in the AHL sometimes goes up against former Buckeyes goalie Tommy Nappier, who is now with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. They generally keep their discussions to pregame or postgame. But Laczynski admits to offering the occasional chirp at his former teammate.

“My freshman class was eight guys,” Gerard said. “So I played with them for four years. And you play with those other guys for two or three years. It’s a great experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s something you’ll never forget.”

Jackson Cates won a national championship at Minnesota-Duluth in 2019, going through Allentown to get there. And in 2021, Cates was part of the Bulldogs’ epic five-overtime marathon win over North Dakota, the longest game in NCAA tournament history.

“It will probably be the craziest game I’ll ever play in,” Cates said. “Just the total effort from all the guys. It’ll be something I’ll never forget.”

Some of the next players to join the Phantoms and other AHL teams in the next few weeks will have similar memories of a lifetime from the NCAA tournament.