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THE PUCKS STOP HERE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is some sort of joke, right? The national college hockey championship in Southern California? The NCAA begs to set college academic standards, and yet its executives flunk geography?

The schools advancing to the Frozen Four--Boston College, Maine, Michigan State and New Hampshire--play three time zones to the east. No school west of the Rocky Mountains fields a Division I hockey team--unless you go north, way north, to Alaska.

Who dreamed up this crazy concept? An athletic director, starved for sunshine? A promoter, starved for cash?

Would you believe a pension fund manager?

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“I guess,” Scott Farden said, “it was my stupid idea.”

Farden laughs. He can laugh now. Yesterday’s stupid idea is today’s brilliant success, and the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim expects near-sellout crowds for the national semifinals Thursday and the championship game Saturday, the first held west of Colorado.

“Whenever you put on an event where there’s absolutely no history, there’s going to be concern,” Pond General Manager Tim Ryan said. “It’s a good feeling now to see this event has support not only of fans locally but of fans all over the country.”

Farden, 33, didn’t know Ryan eight years ago. Then again, Farden didn’t know very many people in Southern California. He had a good job, making big bucks in the financial business, but he was a lonely boy in the big city.

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“I had just moved to L.A.,” he said. “I was overwhelmed by the fact there were 10 million-plus people living in the area.”

Most of them, of course, kept their doors locked and their car windows shut. So how could a guy find himself some buddies?

Sports. Guys like sports. So Farden formed a group called the Southern California Sports Council and invited young men from the worlds of law, finance and entertainment to join. In addition to male bonding, the members of the group would work to lure sports events to the region.

Great idea, but hardly original. The Los Angeles Sports Council, incorporated in 1988 and supported by major corporations and every pro team in town, represented the region in bidding for such events as the Super Bowl, World Cup and United States Olympic Festival.

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That left Farden and his newfound friends to sit around a table and toss out ideas for what he called “second-tier events"--tractor pulls, college soccer, the Nike golf tour. Farden tossed out college hockey.

“The guys were like, ‘Nah!’ ” Farden said.

Farden would not be so easily deterred. He had played in the Frozen Four during his years at Harvard. He loved the sport, the event, the intensity, the enthusiasm. So he called the NCAA, a cold call really, and asked how he might prepare a proposal for a Frozen Four in Southern California.

To this day, Farden remembers what the voice on the other end of the phone asked: “And where do you want to do this?”

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Said Farden: “We didn’t have a clue. But we thought we’d try.”

The NCAA requires a host school to coordinate its championships, but neither UCLA nor USC plays Division I hockey. For that matter, no school in the Pacific time zone plays Division I hockey.

So a young and ambitious pension fund manager met a young and ambitious athletic director, and the University of Alaska Anchorage signed up. The school wanted to expand its national profile beyond the Great Alaska Shootout. Tim Dillon, the athletic director then and vice chancellor now, longed to host the Frozen Four, but the NCAA demanded an arena larger than the 6,400-seat one in Anchorage.

“The biggest thing you can do for a young program is win a national championship,” Dillon said. “The second biggest thing you can do for a young program is host a national championship.”

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But where? The Pond would satisfy the NCAA, certainly, as a shiny new building with 17,000 seats and an NHL tenant. Just one little hitch: When time came to bid for the Frozen Four, in the spring of 1993, the Pond was still under construction.

“We went in there with drawings,” Dillon said. “We didn’t even know how many seats there were going to be.”

By then, the Los Angeles Sports Council also had signed up. Even in this era of fax and FedEx, the NCAA didn’t want to depend on a school in Anchorage staging a tournament in Anaheim all by itself.

Farden got an audience with the council president, David Simon, then got the council to join the bid for the Frozen Four.

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“I listened, kind of skeptically at first,” Simon said. “But as I listened, it became apparent this thing really could fly.”

Farden sold Simon with the same pitch later thrown to the NCAA. In 1993, Southern California was a hockey boom town. Wayne Gretzky led the Kings to their only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. The Mighty Ducks were hatching. The Anaheim Bullfrogs and Los Angeles Blades drew pretty good crowds for roller hockey. Youth hockey leagues, on skates and on wheels, sprouted throughout suburbia.

The Anaheim bid included an endorsement letter from Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and, perhaps more important, promises from the Kings and Ducks to provide access to customer mailing lists for ticket sales. The Kings and Ducks also agreed to vacate town during the Frozen Four.

Still, the NCAA could have thanked Farden and Co. for their interest, then resorted to the tried and true, to guaranteed crowds in hockey meccas such as Boston, Detroit or St. Paul, Minn.

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“I think the NCAA showed tremendous courage in coming,” Farden said. “They had a lot to lose and not a lot to gain. They were selling out.

“But if we want UCLA and USC and other West Coast schools to have Division I hockey in 20 years, we need to have that exposure.”

Farden moved to New York three years ago, leaving the Frozen Four organization to Dillon, the tournament manager, and Simon, the assistant tournament manager. Farden, a vice president at Morgan Stanley, flew here Tuesday and will escort one of the four schools during the tournament.

Ryan, the Pond general manager, wants the Frozen Four to return to Anaheim. Farden’s Southern California Sports Council will not be bidding for the event.

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The group disbanded years ago, with but one shining legacy, one sporting event lured to Southern California. The national college hockey championship? Imagine that, indeed.

FROZEN FOUR

* Where: Arrowhead Pond.

SEMIFINALS

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* Thursday: 1 p.m.--No. 4 Maine (29-6-4) vs. No. 5 Boston College (27-11-4); 6 p.m.--No. 2-ranked New Hampshire (30-6-3) vs. No. 3 Michigan State (29-5-7).

* Television: ESPN2.

CHAMPIONSHIP

* Saturday: 4:30 p.m.

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* Television: ESPN.

* Tickets: (714) 704-2500 or Ticketmaster at (213) 480-3232, (714) 740-2000.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE FROZEN FOUR AT ARROWHEAD POND

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NCAA Semifinals, Thursday, ESPN2

GAME 1: 1 p.m.

BOSTON COLLEGE

* Coach: Jerry York (27th season, Fifth at Boston College, overall: 564-413-48, at Boston College: 97-78-14).

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* Record, conference finish: 27-11-4, Third, Hockey East.

* Seed, region and bid: Fourth, West, Automatic (won Hockey East tournament).

* Last NCAA appearance: 1998, lost to Michigan, 3-2, in title game.

* Best NCAA tournament finish: National champions, 1949.

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* It’s a fact: Meets Hockey East rival Maine for the fifth meeting of the season between the two schools. They’ve split the four games.

****

MAINE

* Coach: Shawn Walsh (15th season, all at Maine, overall: 350-195-32).

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* Record, conference finish: 29-6-4, Second, Hockey East.

* Seed, region and bid: Third, East, At-Large.

* Last NCAA appearance: 1995, lost to Boston University, 6-2, in national championship.

* Best NCAA tournament finish: National champions, 1993.

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* It’s a fact: Senior Steve Kariya, the brother of Ducks superstar Paul Kariya, was named MVP of the East Regional with four goals and four assists.

****

GAME 2: 6 p.m.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

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* Coach: Dick Umile (Ninth season, all at New Hampshire, 174-104-19)

* Record and Conference finish: 30-6-3, First, Hockey East

* Seed, region and bid: First, East, Automatic

* Last NCAA appearance: 1998, lost to Michigan, 4-0, national semifinals

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* Best NCAA tournament finish: Final Four, 1982 and 1998

* It’s a fact: Lost Hockey East Conference tournament, 5-4, in overtime to fellow Frozen Four foe, Boston College, on March 20.

****

MICHIGAN STATE

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* Coach: Ron Mason (33rd season overall, 837-354-70; 20th at Michigan St, 548-244-56)

* Record, conference finish: 29-5-7, First, CCHA

* Seed, region and bid: Second, West, Automatic (won CCHA tournament)

* Last NCAA appearance: 1998, lost to Ohio St, 4-3 in overtime in quarterfinals

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* Best NCAA tournament finish: National champions, 1966 and 1986

* It’s a fact: Michigan State has lost five of six all-time meetings and is 0-2 (both in 1982) against New Hampshire in the tournament.

Championship Game: Saturday, 4:30 p.m., ESPN


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