The NCAA men's Division I hockey tournament begins Friday, and the 16-team field is rife with traditional rivalries. Some of the enmity of those heated rivalries extends to the pros, as college hockey has become a major pipeline to the NHL. We asked a handful of players who are alumni of top NCAA programs to sell us on their alma mater's virtues, talk some trash about their rivals (including some current teammates) and predict who will win this year's tourney. (Spoiler alert: They didn't all pick their own team.)
Why their alma mater is the best program in college hockey
Minnesota Wild center Matt Cullen, St. Cloud State (1995-97): "It's a program that has been on the rise for the past 10 years. It wasn't that long ago -- when I went there -- that they were a freshly minted Division I [program], and in a relatively short period of time they've become a national powerhouse. St. Cloud State has become a hockey school. I feel good about saying that. [Coach] Bob Motzko has done a great job."
Winnipeg Jets center Andrew Copp, Michigan (2014-15): "Let's see. We've won the most national championships -- nine. We have the best atmosphere. I don't know if we have the most NHL [alumni], but we have a lot. And it's a top-20 academic institution, in one of the best college towns. [Ann Arbor] is an awesome city. If you read this, you'd probably want to go there."
Chicago Blackhawks winger Vinnie Hinostroza, Notre Dame (2013-15): "Notre Dame is the best because of the balance between school and hockey. It's a great university academically and it has one of the most beautiful campuses in the U.S."
Minnesota Wild winger Jason Zucker, Denver (2010-12): "It doesn't matter if it's [former coach George] Gwozdecky or [current coach] Jim Montgomery, they know how to win games. That's the culture they have at Denver. It makes it a lot of fun. They get you ready to be a pro, and that's the biggest key. They make sure you're ready for that next step."
Chicago Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz, North Dakota (2014-16): "It's the tradition of past players, how they develop players, and the success they have both at winning and at moving guys on to the next level."
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, Northeastern (2010-11): "[The Huskies] play in the oldest rink in America, the Matthews Arena. It's just an amazing atmosphere. [Northeastern has] a great educational program; they do a lot of good things in terms of helping you get a degree and helping you get a job. And you can't beat the location, in downtown Boston, right near Fenway Park. There's no better place to go to college. Boston is a college town. You're 15 minutes away from [Boston University], Harvard or whatever. You hang out at Fenway on days off."
Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt, Minnesota (2010-13): "[Minnesota] has lot of tradition, especially for defensemen. You're looking at the likes of Paul Martin, Jordan Leopold, Alex Goligoski, all products of Minnesota. That's actually the recruiting pitch that I got."
Jets winger Brandon Tanev, Providence (2012-16): "[Providence] is definitely a great school, in a great city, with very passionate fans. I got a great education there. The athletic program really excels -- the basketball team has made the NCAA tournament, the hockey team has done really well. Every year we get a little bit better."
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Jordan Oesterle, Western Michigan (2010-14): "The coaching staff, with [head coach] Andy Murray, definitely brings a lot of value. That's why players want to go play for them."
Minnesota Wild goalie Alex Stalock, Minnesota-Duluth (2002-05): "They do a great job of recruiting, of getting character guys. It's why, for years now they've been one of the last teams standing [in the tournament]. Coaches like Lee Davidson and [former Minnesota-Duluth assistant] Steve Rohlik, who is the head coach of Ohio State now, were brought in to get [the Bulldogs] back to the postseason, and they did. And now almost every year you see them in the tournament."
Vegas Golden Knights winger Alex Tuch, Boston College (2014-16): "It's a dynasty, and it begins with our coach, Jerry York. He's the best college coach in the world because he's the most successful at his level. I was with him when he got his 1,000th win. That was a special moment. But when you see the guys they're filtering into the NHL, it's impressive. They're hitting a bit of a rough patch right now, but that's because they recruited such good players that guys like Noah Hanifin and Zach Sanford and Michael Matheson have left [to go pro]. Like half of our team left before junior year. So it's tough when you don't have a senior class."
Why their team's rival stinks
Copp (Michigan alum): "I have personal reason for not liking Michigan State. I was actually talking to an assistant coach there when I was getting recruited, and was planning to go up to East Lansing for a visit because Michigan hadn't offered me yet and I had to keep my options open. A week or so before, my little brother and his team played against the son of Michigan State's head coach. So when I saw the coach at the game, I said, 'I'm looking forward to coming to campus next week.' And then the next week, when I was supposed to go to the visit, I called the assistant coach to ask, 'Is everything set up?' I didn't get an answer back. It made me hate Michigan State even more."
Hinostroza (Notre Dame): "We changed from the Hockey East conference and now we're in the Big Ten. So I guess Michigan would be our biggest rival now. There's always been a rivalry between the football teams. We always get pumped up when they play. The two schools just don't like each other."
Cullen (St. Cloud State): "Minnesota was the rival when I played. It was always a big deal when the Gophers came to town. We were a young program, so honestly it was probably more of a rivalry for us. I don't know why we hated them; we just did. They had a fantastic program for a long time, and we were the young program only an hour down the road, trying to prove ourselves. And we did pretty well, I'll add."
Schmaltz (North Dakota): "There's something about Minnesota. We just don't like them. And they don't like us."
Zucker (Denver): "Colorado College can't recruit. That's the biggest thing in college hockey, or any sport. It's recruiting. Denver is a great city. Colorado Springs is actually beautiful too, but it's a big rivalry for us. For me, it's great to see that CC isn't playing well."
Oleksiak (Northeastern): "Our biggest rival is probably Boston University. Every time we play BU, it's going to be a sold-out crowd at the Dog House, with the chants going on. Personally, I didn't like [Boston College] more than I didn't like BU. I guess Northeastern has always just been a smaller school in a big pond, so we were always the underdogs. Always punching up."
Tuch (Boston College): "Boston University is our rival, but I can't say it stinks. My little brother just committed to go there. It's a great program, but it wasn't really for me. I liked a little tighter-knit community a bit outside the city."
Schmidt (Minnesota): "North Dakota stinks, for many reasons I can't get into. The only thing that they have up there is hockey, so they breathe it, they live it. That's what they'll say, anyway. Whatever. It's a great rivalry. We really do hate each other. I've met some good guys who went there, but it doesn't mean I like their team."
Stalock (Minnesota-Duluth): "Minnesota essentially should get whoever they want, right? It's the University of Minnesota. Every kid who grows up in the Twin Cities dreams of going there. When people hear you're going to Duluth they say, 'Why would you want to go there?' But if you go out there, and you experience it, it's an unbelievable place."
Tanev (Providence): "It was always fun playing against Boston University and Boston College. They are only 40 minutes away [from Providence]. Anybody in Hockey East, you don't want them to win. I should mention that we played BU in the national championship [in 2015] and we beat them, so we have bragging rights."
Oesterle (Western Michigan): "Well, our rivals used to be Michigan or Michigan State, but now they're in the Big Ten, so I think it's probably Miami. I actually don't know if they stink. They beat us two or three times this year, so maybe we're the ones who stink."
My best college hockey memory is ...
Copp: "Beating Michigan State in the [Great Lakes Invitational] my junior year. We were missing Dylan Larkin, J.T. Compher, Tyler Motte and Zach Werenski and we still won. We weren't having that great of a year, and that win turned things around. Oh, and another one: scoring against Ohio State in overtime in the first-ever Big Ten regular-season game."
Oleksiak: "Playing in the Beanpot Tournament was the coolest thing I did. We made it to the finals and lost to BC, but it was by far the best experience I had there. It's such a great tournament."
Tuch: "Winning the Beanpot Tournament. I had the overtime winner in the [championship game in 2016] and it was the best feeling in the world."
Cullen: "Beating the Gophers for the first time. We won in overtime on the road. That was a pretty fun night."
Schmidt: "I loved listening to the Minnesota band play. When the band gets going, I get so fired up. It didn't matter what sport. For us, for anyone. I love that band."
Hinostroza: "Just looking up in the arena and seeing students wearing the Notre Dame jerseys. Being able to play for the school you're going to, it's a really cool opportunity."
Zucker: "Playing in the Final Five, at the Xcel Energy Center, was always incredible. During my two years [at Denver] we played North Dakota in the final. We actually lost both games, but seeing the Xcel Energy Center filled with 19,000 people was electric."
Stalock: "Winning the WCHA championship was pretty special. We were the first team to do it as a play-in team. It was at the Xcel Energy Center, and as a Minnesota kid that was pretty cool. Also: We played the Gophers the first game and we beat them out of the tournament."
Schmaltz: "Winning the national championship in 2016."
Tanev: "Definitely winning the national championship [with Providence in 2015]. It's the pinnacle of college hockey. It was special for the school, being the first national champion."
Oesterle: "The whole environment. I never played for a [high] school growing up, so playing for your peers -- people you're going to classes with -- and seeing them get behind you was a really cool experience."
Do you talk trash with your current teammates about college hockey?
Copp: "We talk a lot of trash in this room. We have three Michigan guys, so it's hard for everyone else to get a word in." [Editor's note: Copp's answer was interrupted by Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien yelling across the room: "Go Minnesota!" To which Copp responded: "You didn't even go to [college]. Can I see your diploma?"]
Oleksiak: "Oh yeah. Brian Dumoulin over here [went to Boston College], so he and I go at it a little bit because we played against each other. Shoot the breeze a little bit. We have Notre Dame guys [Riley Sheahan and Bryan Rust], so they get a little bit of harassment."
Schmidt: "Erik Haula and I played together, we were actually roommates. So we can gang up on people. But we can't say much this year, because we didn't have a good season. It was better when I played with the Capitals. We had Matt Niskanen, who played at Duluth, and T.J. Oshie and Taylor Chorney, who were both at North Dakota. We would have a lot of bets. We'd have to wear the other team's colors in the rink, and that was painful. Oshie still owes me a full-body Gopher suit. I need to remind him of that, actually."
Zucker: "Every once in a while we do, athough not quite as much as I thought it would be. Sometimes it's hard for us to keep up, with our schedule and us playing Friday and Saturday nights and traveling and everything. But definitely with the CC guys. I make sure I give them flak."
Tanev: "The Michigan guys think their program has been the best, but in recent years Providence has had a bit of edge on them, winning a national championship. [Editor's note: This answer was interrupted by Copp yelling: "But you don't even have a football team!"] There's a ton of history in this room, though. Paul Stastny went to Denver, Blake Wheeler went to Minnesota. Those are two programs that have been around forever."
Hinostroza: "Me and Schmaltz and Jonathan Toews do. They're North Dakota guys, and we go back and forth a little bit."
Schmaltz: "We go back and forth a little bit about who has the better ranking. Especially with Vinnie Hinostroza. I know [Notre Dame] got a new facility, but I still think North Dakota has the best one in the country.
Tuch: "We talk a little trash here and there. The most intense our locker room got was during the Olympics. When the Czech Republic played the U.S., and then the Canada-U.S. women's game, that's when guys got the most heated."
Oesterle: "Not so much anymore. My first year or second year in the league, if my team was playing a teammate's team we'd make bets or something like that. But now that I'm four years removed, it happens less. Especially last year, the way Western Michigan's season went. I wasn't willing to put as much on the line."
Stalock: "Here and there. I'm not the biggest trash-talker. I guess I could be this year. Actually Cully [Matt Cullen] could be if he wanted, since St. Cloud is the No. 1 team in the country."
Cullen: "Only in good fun."
Who's going to win the men's NCAA hockey tournament this year?
Copp: "I like Denver because I really like Troy Terry. We have some mutual friends, and my little brother is in that same age group. Denver has a great program. I like Notre Dame, too; a couple of my brother's friends play there. But it's hard to pick against Michigan. They're hot right now and they have good goaltending."
Hinostroza: "I think Notre Dame will. We had a great first half, and we're starting to play even better now. So we have some great momentum going into the tournament."
Oleksiak: "Northeastern, because of [the Huskies'] firepower. They have some of the top scoring in the country, and they just seem to be playing really well right now, with a lot of swagger. They have all the pieces. They're doing some damage."
Tanev: "Providence. We've been through it before, and they've had a great team the past few years."
Schmidt: "You gotta think that Denver is going to take it. It's very hard to repeat, but they've been playing well, they've got a good goalie, they've been hot."
Zucker: "Denver. They're a better team this year than they were last year. They have Henrik Borgstrom and Troy Terry and a few of other key guys back."
Stalock: "Duluth. It's a really good group, and they're getting healthy at the right time. They've been playing well down the stretch."
Cullen: "St. Cloud. They've been good all year long; they were a team that from the beginning of the year was expected to be good, and they upheld their end of the bargain. It's their turn now."
Tuch: "You never know. My freshman year Providence won it and they were the last team to get in. So it could be anyone."
Senior writer Greg Wyshynski contributed to this story.