By John Gilbert
It seemed more like the pinnacle of the WCHA's storied existence than just the start the new decade of the 1980s, with the University of Minnesota still floating in the euphoria of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Gold Medal run, which featured five Gopher underclassmen among eight alumni and 14 WCHA players in all, selected by Minnesota coach Herb Brooks. Despite all those departures, life went on at Minnesota, where interim coach Brad Buetow put the Gophers together to finish second to North Dakota in a heated race in 1979-80.
North Dakota advanced through league playoffs to reach the final four, and finishing with a six-game winning streak, which included two-game playoff sweeps over Michigan Tech and Colorado College, Minnesota would have joined the Fighting Sioux for the second year in a row to follow up on the 1979 title Brooks had won. But a recently added rule required the Gophers to play a new foe, Northern Michigan, in a one-game NCAA qualifier at Williams Arena.
The old arena was filled with a crowd measured at 7,606 as Northern Michigan jumped ahead 2-0 in the first period, before freshman Aaron Broten got one back in the second. Three minutes later, Steve Griffith tied it 2-2, but Steve Bozek, a speedy Wildcat center, scored his second of the game on a power play late in the middle period to regain the lead for Northern at 3-2. As the last minute of the middle period ticked away, Tim Harrer, an All-American who had scored 53 goals that season, fed Broten, the freshman younger brother of Neal Broten, who had gone with the Olympians. Broten skated across the blue line and cut loose with a high-winding slap shot and blew a 50-foot rocket past Northern Michigan's ace goaltender, Steve Weeks. From the press box, you could see the net puff as the puck hit the twine, about halfway up on the right side. But the puck somehow materialized behind the net.
Linesman Dick Haigh said he clearly saw it and informed referee Dino Piniccia that the puck had gone in. Piniccia examined the twine and found no rips in it and disallowed the goal. That came at 19:45 of the second, and Minnesota did fashion a 3-3 tie at 1:40 of the third period. Bozek, however, danced through the defense and scored on the next shift, at 2:09, and his hat trick was the difference in a 4-3 victory for the underdog Wildcats. Weeks made 33 saves, but it was a crushing end for a Minnesota team loaded with scorers such as Harrer (53-29—82), Aaron Broten (25-47—72), Steve Ulseth (27-33—60), and a lineup loaded with gunners.
Stunned as the big crowd was, Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley said: "How can we win 32 games and not get a chance at the NCAA?" North Dakota beat Northern Michigan 5-2 in the NCAA tournament title game, led by All-WCHA and All-America forward Mark Taylor and defenseman Howard Walker, and Minnesota had to be satisfied with Harrer winning the league scoring title and league MVP, Broten winning freshman of the year, and Brad Buetow winning coach of the year for the patchwork season that almost made it.
That was how the decade started, a decade filled with big stories and controversies, a mutinous split within the WCHA, a changing of the guard among legendary coaches, and the origination of the Hobey Baker Memorial Award nationwide. The Gophers stayed at the top of the WCHA, bolstered by Neal Broten's return to play with his brother, and they followed up with a 20-8 WCHA championship record (33-12 overall) in that 1981-82 season. Aaron Broten recorded the all-time Gopher scoring record at 47-59—106, followed by Ulseth's 41-52—93 and future NHLer Butsy Erickson (39-47–86), all of which outstripped Neal Broten's solid 17-54–71 stats. The Gophers, however, found a different way to be disappointed at NCAA tournament time. The Gophers zoomed past Minnesota Duluth, and Colorado College in two-game WCHA series, and swept Colgate to reach the final four, which was held in Duluth.
Joining the Gophers in Duluth were Michigan Tech, and Minnesota's arch-rival Wisconsin, which had tied Tech for second in the standings, but was beaten in a shocking league playoff series. Wisconsin beat Colorado College 8-2 in the first game of the total-goals set, but the Tigers roared back for a seemingly impossible 11-4 upset the next night — eliminating the Badgers, 13-12. But while Minnesota eliminated the seventh-place CC Tigers the next weekend, Badger Bob Johnson kept his team ready, and sure enough, the NCAA selection committee invited Wisconsin to the Final Four. Forever known as the "Backdoor Badgers," it didn't matter to the Gophers, who played perhaps their perfect game to whip Tech 7-2 in the NCAA semifinals, but they followed it up with a completely flat final, and Wisconsin skated away with the championship, 6-3. Marc Behrend was the all-tournament goaltender and flashy teammate John Newberry also made all-tournament.
The Gophers, who won the league title by six points over Wisconsin and Michigan Tech, were left with only frustration — and a trophy-case full of awards. Ulseth was the WCHA's leading scorer at 28-35—63, and league MVP, and joined Aaron and Neal Broten on an all-Gopher first unit All-WCHA. John Giordano, a new face as coach of fifth-place Michigan, was coach of the year. Neal Broten and Ulseth also were named All-America, along with defensemen Marc Chorney of North Dakota and Tim Watters of Tech, and Michigan goalie Paul Fricker, while Aaron Broten — 106 points and all — was left off.
Leading into 1980-81 season, a promotion-minded private sports club in Bloomington, Minn., the Decathlon Club, decided to present a national college hockey award, named after Hobey Baker, an early hockey and all-sports star at Princeton. A panel of voters was selected, and the winner was named at a large banquet at the club. The first Hobey Baker Award went to Neal Broten. There were some critics afterward who suggested that Neal, as the only 1980 Olympian to return to college, may have influenced the Decathlon Club to go for maximum publicity by capitalizing on the Gold Medal.
Meanwhile, Michigan athletic director Don Canham organized a splinter league, joining regional programs at Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, Ferris State, Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio in a separate league, and strongly influencing in-state programs at Michigan State and Michigan Tech to join the Wolverines in withdrawing from the WCHA to form the CCHA — Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Canham talked about costly trips to Colorado College and Denver, and the new league would be an inexpensive "bus league." It was a sad move for traditionalists to see Michigan — the first real national power — plus storied powers at Tech and Michigan State pull the plug on their charter membership in the country's strongest league.
The WCHA persevered with only six teams for the 1981-82 season, everybody playing a 16-game league schedule. North Dakota won the league title at 19-7, just one point up on Wisconsin (18-7-1), and both advanced to the NCAA. Wisconsin won the league's No. 1 seed by sweeping the Fighting Sioux 9-0 and 3-1 in the league playoff final in Grand Forks, in what would become Bob Johnson's final season with the Badgers. That hometown loss did not go down well with Gino Gasparini, the North Dakota coach and league coach of the year, who had top goaltender Jon Casey, league MVP Phil Sykes, and freshman of the year in defenseman James Patrick. The NCAA tournament was in Providence, R.I., where North Dakota beat Northeastern 6-2 while Wisconsin beat New Hampshire 3-0 in the semifinals.
The Fighting Sioux set things straight with a 5-2 victory over Wisconsin to claim the NCAA title. Ed Beers of Denver led the league in scoring at 30-19—49 in the 26 league games, and Wisconsin's Bruce Driver and John Newberry were the league's only two All-Americans.
Meanwhile, in Duluth, program originator Ralph Romano, who stayed on as athletic director, had hired a couple of coaches after he stepped to the higher position. Bill Selman and former Bulldog Terry Shercliffe had varying amounts of success, while a high school program 75 miles to the northwest, Grand Rapids, won a state title and had high-profile success under coach Gus Hendrickson. One of two brothers who grew up in Eveleth and played for Amo Bessone at Michigan State, Gus had lifted the Grand Rapids program while brother Dave Hendrickson did an outstanding job at Virginia, Minn. Romano decided to gamble and brought in the personable Gus Hendrickson in 1975, and Hendrickson brought along his assistant coach, Virginia, Minn., native Mike Sertich, another former Bulldog.
Gus Hendrickson didn't win any titles, but he changed the culture of the UMD program by shifting from a dependence on Canadian blue-chip talent to recruiting the top Iron Range and Duluth area players, who were fan favorites. As the '80s arrived, Romano was frustrated by his program not becoming a contender, and during the 1981-82 season, he suggested Hendrickson should dismiss Sertich. Hendrickson refused. By coincidence, Sertich approached Hendrickson in midseason and said he was worried their friendship might be becoming frayed and resigned. At the end of the season, after an intense recruiting battle over Cloquet star Corey Millen ended with Millen choosing the Gophers, Romano fired Hendrickson.
Romano had tried to entice John MacInnes into moving from Houghton to Duluth, then settled on trying to lure former Bulldog goaltender Chico Resch to return to Duluth and become coach. But Resch chose to play one more season with the New York Islanders, so Romano faced the chore of hiring someone as interim coach for one season. Sertich was urged to apply. "I refused, because I didn't want to affect my friendship with Gus," Sertich recalled. But he finally agreed when a mutual friend said he would explain the required urgency to Hendrickson. But Hendrickson was unable to be reached until after news broke that Sertich was the new "interim" coach of the Bulldogs. Ironically, their friendship was shattered because Hendrickson suspected Sertich might have influenced his dismissal.
As often happens in hockey, the new voice, even with familiar systems, was met with enthusiasm and the Bulldogs rose from 16-21-3 to 26-16-1 in 1982-83, Sertich's first year. He was voted WCHA Coach of the Year for the fourth-place finish, behind Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, and the school made its first post-season run into NCAA tournament play. Losing 7-3, 3-2 to Providence hardly blunted the enthusiasm around Duluth, which made an interesting dilemma for Romano, who couldn't very well fire the coach of the year. Minnesota's Scott Bjugstad won the league scoring title (21-35—56) and North Dakota's Jon Casey led the goaltending for the second year in a row, with a 2.63 goals-against record.
Wisconsin, with Marc Behrend in goal, and a defense led by Chris Chelios and an offense ignited by Pat Flatley and Paul Houck, beat Providence in a 2-0 semifinal at Grand Forks, where Minnesota fell 5-3 to Harvard. The Badgers whipped Harvard 6-2 for the national championship, while Minnesota lost 4-3 to Providence in the afternoon third-place game. So frustrated was coach Buetow that he allowed his seniors to stay overnight for the championship game while sending the underclassmen immediately home on the six-hour bus ride, adding to the building controversy in Minneapolis.
UMD goaltender Bob Mason, voted the league's most valuable player and first-team All-WCHA, was emblematic of a quite-amazing group of players UMD had assembled, and in storybook fashion, the Bulldogs rose in another incremental jump in Sertich's second season to win their first WCHA championship in 1983-84. In a tragic twist of fate, Romano never got to appreciate UMD's rise to the top rung. Romano suffered a heart attack and died during a midseason UMD game at the DECC. The man who had been primarily responsible for moving UMD up to Division I, getting the program into the WCHA, and getting the city to build the Duluth Arena, which was later rechristened the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, has probably never been fully appreciated for the prominence his program achieved.
Added to the drama, when the Bulldogs went on to a 29-12-2 season, 19-5-2 atop the WCHA, Sertich was named coach of the year for the second year in a row. There was nobody to consider replacing him, just as there was nobody in position to remove the "interim" from his coaching title. After all of that, there still was no way to comprehend UMD's charge to the final four in Lake Placid.
Because the Bulldogs had never gone that far into spring, the DECC had long been booked for an annual boat show, and there was no way to change the schedule. After beating Wisconsin 6-3 and 9-0, UMD had to hastily find a place to play that was worthy of an unprecedented WCHA playoff final series, against North Dakota. They settled on Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota.
"The DECC was booked, so we had to go to Williams Arena to play North Dakota," said Norm Maciver, a brilliant defenseman on that team who went on to a decade-long NHL career, that was followed by being assistant general manager for the Chicago Blackhawks in their Stanley Cup years, and in the summer of 2020, Maciver was named in as the first general manager of the new Seattle NHL franchise. "We went down there and we were in the Gophers' dressing room and sitting on the home bench. Our fans were so fired up, and we beat North Dakota 8-1 in the first game."
After their biggest "home" crowd ever of 7,297, they nearly matched it with the second game, which was anticlimactic. With a 7-goal cushion, UMD played it cautious and lost 5-4, but won the series 12-6 to send them into the NCAA quarterfinals, where they overran Clarkson 6-2, and escaped when the second game got too close — losing 6-3 to take the total-goals series 9-8.
That earned UMD a trip to Lake Placid, to play on the Olympic rink where former Bulldogs Mark Pavelich and John Harrington had helped Team USA win Gold just four years earlier. "We had to play North Dakota one more time in the semifinals," Maciver recalled. "We beat them 2-1 when Billy Watson scored in overtime."
Ah, overtime. The magic word. In the final, UMD faced Bowling Green and seemed to have its first NCAA title secured with a two-goal lead in the third period. "But they got one to cut it to 4-3," Maciver said, recounting the action from 35 years earlier as though it happened yesterday. "Then in the last minute of the third period, they threw the puck into the right corner. Kosti [UMD goalie Rick Kosti] never came out of the net to play the puck, but he did that time. He might have thought the whole play was icing, and when he went behind the net, the puck hit the seam in the Zamboni door and bounced right in front."
It was an easy tap-in, and the game was tied 4-4. Then they played on … and on … into the fourth overtime before UMD failed to score on a 3-on-1, and Bowling Green raced back the other way, and scored on a well-executed 3-on-2 rush, ending the longest game in NCAA tournament history to that point — 97 minutes and 11 seconds. Kosti set a tournament record with 55 saves.
UMD senior defenseman Tom Kurvers was awarded the school's first Hobey Baker Award as the nation's outstanding college player, and he went on as a standout defenseman for over a decade in the NHL. He didn't leave the cupboard bare, however, and Sertich inserted a new player who captured the spotlight for 1984-85. A freshman wing named Brett Hull. Those teams captured the imagination of the entire city of Duluth, and the "UMD" signs adorning almost every shop window along Superior Street, were simply left in place for the resumption of the Bulldogs momentum in the 1984-85 season.
UMD followed up its first WCHA title by winning its second that next season, going 25-7-2, 36-9-3 overall in 1984-85. But the competition was getting tighter. Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan jumped ship from the CCHA and joined the WCHA to expand the league from six to eight teams, although Northern finished seventh and Tech eighth. The Bulldogs beat Michigan Tech 3-2 and 5-3 to open league playoffs, then tied North Dakota 4-4 before beating the Fighting Sioux 6-4 to reach the league final series against arch-rival and league runner-up Minnesota. UMD lost 6-4 to the Gophers in the first game of the total-goals set, then stormed back to take the second game 6-2. That reversal characterized both UMD's clutch performances and Minnesota's troubling continuation of faltering under pressure.
UMD swept Harvard 4-2, 4-2 in the quarterfinal round to gain a repeat trip to the final four at the Detroit Olympia, which was in its final year before Joe Louis Arena would open for the Red Wings. Visions of the previous year's four-overtime marathon were still fresh when the Bulldogs hit the ice and lost to RPI 6-5. The game did NOT go four overtimes. It only went three. In those days, a third-place game was played as a final game preliminary, and UMD beat Boston College 7-6 — in overtime.
Bill Watson was named 1985 Hobey Baker, giving UMD two in a row. He scored 37-43—80 to win the WCHA scoring title and wound up with a 49-60—109 total in 46 games — more than a goal per game, and an average of 2.37 points per game over an entire 46-game season. Watson was also WCHA MVP, while Brett Hull, who scored 32-52—84, was freshman of the year. Watson, Norm Maciver and Rick Kosti were first-team All-WCHA, and also All-Americans. And Mike Sertich won coach of the year for an unprecedented third consecutive season.
When asked how the Bulldogs had mastered the rise to championship form, Maciver acknowledged the strong run of talent, but said the main reason was the "Ozzie Factor." Ozzie was the nickname for Mark Odnokon, a rugged, two-way winger from Prince Albert, Sask. He could play, and scored decently in a support role, but the main stat for him was that along with 39-80—119 scoring statistics, he had 130 penalties for 289 minutes, more than double his points.
"We were good, but North Dakota had always intimidated us, along with every other team in the league," Maciver said. "They were always aggressive, and they had Jim Archibald, a good player, who always ran over people and was intimidating. Until we got Ozzie. From then on, he leveled the playing field for us and allowed us to play our game against North Dakota, and everybody else."
In the league standings, Minnesota-Duluth's 25-7-2 was followed by Minnesota's 21-10-3, Wisconsin, where Jeff Sauer had replaced Bob Johnson, at 20-14, North Dakota 19-14-1, and Denver 16-15-3. Pat Micheletti led Minnesota's offense, and was all-WCHA and all-America, and John Blue topped league goalies with a 3.00 mark in 22 games, but Kosti was All-America in goal.
The Gophers, however, continued their odd trend of faltering in the second game of total-goals series. Minnesota got past Northern Michigan by responding to a 4-3 loss with a 6-4 victory, then beat Wisconsin in both games, but in the league playoff final the Gophers beat UMD 6-4, only to lose 6-2 in a rematch reversal. Still, Minnesota got to the NCAA quarterfinals where they went to Boston College, repeating their trend of winning the opener, 7-5, only to collapse the next day and have their season end in a 4-1 defeat for a 9-8 total-goals elimination.
Minnesota athletic director Paul Giel, who said he had given Buetow a chance to resign the year before, explained that he agreed to keep him one more season, challenging him to meet several conditions. When they weren't, Giel fired Buetow after the playoff collapses. Giel conducted a thorough search and was prepared to select the candidate recommended by the search committee. But Herb Brooks contacted him at nearly midnight on the eve of his announcement, and convinced Giel of the importance of hiring an "M Man," meaning former Gopher All-American Doug Woog, who had been coaching at South St. Paul High School, his alma mater. Woog had a different approach, although he found it a lot easier to maintain the strong WCHA contending position the Gophers had than to break through at tournament time,.
UMD had one more big season in its '80s dossier, coming in 1985-86, when a powerful team led by Hull and Maciver — and Odnokon, as captain — was in the thick of the title race with a resurgent Denver team under Ralph Backstrom, Minnesota under Woog, Wisconsin under Sauer, and Rick Comley's explosive Northern Michigan outfit. The new wave of coaches supplanted the familiar names of MacInnes, Armstrong, Johnson and Brooks.
UMD was fighting for first place when the team held a midseason gathering at Skyline Lanes, a bowling alley on Hwy. 53 near the airport. It was a Sunday afternoon get-together, and some of the players went outside and got involved in a large-scale boot-hockey game. First-line center Matt Christensen was in his fourth year as a pivotal member of the team. He'd scored 30-47—77 while centering Bill Watson the year before, and in '85-86, he centered Brett Hull, who scored an incredible 52 goals in UMD's 42 games. But at the boot-hockey outing, suddenly Christensen collapsed, and his teammates knew immediately something was seriously wrong. He had suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital.
"Matt and I came in together in 1982," said Maciver. "It was a real devastating thing for our team. We didn't know if he was going to make it for quite a while. Luckily, he recovered."
The Bulldogs didn't, however. In a virtual tie for first place after a 9-1 stretch when Christensen went down, Hull's scoring stalled and the Bulldogs sagged to fourth place, and a 3-7-2 finish included losing and tying Denver in league playoffs to end their season.
Gino Gasparini, who had established an impressive resume at North Dakota, regained his touch in the 1986-87 season, turning the offense over to center Tony Hrkac, who made his name easier to pronounce because the Fighting Sioux offense was named "the Hrkac Circus." Hrkac was unstoppable, scoring more than a goal a game through the 36 league games to win the scoring title with 36-50—86 and he was the easy choice for league MVP, and later the Hobey Baker Award, as the Sioux also got league-leading goaltending from future NHLer Ed Belfour (2.37 goals-against average in 22 games). Their 29-6-0 record, outdistanced runner-up Minnesota's 25-9-1, and grew to a whopping 40-8-0 when the Sioux won the NCAA championship in Detroit.
Hrkac and his winger, Bob Joyce, and Belfour were first-team All-WCHA, while Hrkac, Joyce and defenseman Ian Kidd represented North Dakota as first-team All-Americans.
Minnesota regained the league title in 1987-88 behind the sensational goaltending of sophomore Robb Stauber. The Gophers were 28-7-0 in league play, with Wisconsin second, 11 points back, at 22-12-1. Minnesota had a strong team with balanced scoring, but nobody disputed that the Gophers 34-10-0 overall record was wholly dependent on their net-minder from Duluth. Stauber played 44 games overall and had a 2.72 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. He was the leading goalie in the league and its most valuable player, and he was first team All-American. To cap it all, he was the first goaltender to win the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's top college player. Wisconsin, however, won the league playoff, and while Stauber got the Gophers to the final four, they lost 3-2 to St. Lawrence in the semifinals.
The next season saw the Gophers repeat as regular-season champ, at 27-6-2, a whopping 14 points above runner-up Northern Michigan, while North Dakota and Wisconsin tied for third. Stauber actually improved on his statistics in the 1988-89 season, dropping his league-best goals-against average from 2.91 in his Hobey season to 2.33 goals-against in 23 league games, and overall, his save percentage was .911 while his goals-against dropped from 2.72 to 2.43.
Stauber's final game was a classic, coming at St. Paul in the NCAA final against Harvard, which was led by Lane MacDonald, a smooth-skating sniper who had been named Hobey Baker winner the day before. Right there in Minnesota's second home of the St. Paul Civic Center, Harvard extended Minnesota's hex in seeking the title, inflicting a 4-3 overtime victory over the Gophers in the final. That game will best be remembered for two plays. One was when Gopher defenseman Randy Skarda blasted a shot that made a loud clank, and went out, and the other a scintillating breakaway, when MacDonald raced in alone on Stauber, made a deft move to his left and slid the puck under Stauber's outstretched stick — this year's Hobey beating last year's Hobey.
Stauber left after that season to sign a pro contract and pass up his senior year, which also allowed the WCHA to get back to close finishes in its regular-season races. Wisconsin (19-8-1, 36-9-1 overall) won the title by three points over Minnesota, and the Badgers rolled to the national championship with a 2-1 victory over Boston College in the semifinals and a 7-3 victory over Colgate in the finals, in Detroit. The Gophers had designs on joining Wisconsin, but almost by habit, they lost a stunning best-of-three to Boston College in the quarterfinals. B.C. beat Minnesota 4-2, then the Gophers came back to win a tight 2-1 second game, leaving the trip to the final four up to Game 3. David Emma, B.C.'s Hobey Baker-winning star, took the opening face-off and dashed in to score at 0:06 of the first period, and the Eagles never slowed down, eliminating Minnesota 6-1. Badger goaltender Duane Derksen was named all-NCAA tournament and was joined by teammates Rob Andringa and Mark Osiecki on defense, and forwards John Byce and Chris Tancill, with Tancill named outstanding player.
It seemed like the New World Order was taking over as the '80s finished their run. It was a decade in which the WCHA experimented with an interlocking schedule with teams from Hockey East, presumably to verify the strength of the best league in the West interacting with the best league in the East. Traditional WCHA teams like Denver and Michigan Tech fell from the power once wielded by coaches Murray Armstrong and John MacInnes and were promptly replaced by Northern Michigan. The Wildcats were fifth in 1989-90 but won the WCHA title in 1990-91 to launch a new decade.