By John Gilbert
Imagine if they'd had a Hobey Baker Memorial Award back in the 1950s, or '60s, or '70s. That award, presented to the best college hockey player in the U.S., didn't start until 1981, which means going back over the rich heritage of the WCHA is a reminder of how many deserving candidates have only records and recollections to do them justice.
Doesn't it seem that Johnny Mayasich, or John Matchefts, or Red Hay, might have been great Hobey winners? Or Huffer Christiansen, or Red Berenson, or Tom Ross, Mark Johnson, Mike Eaves, Doug Palazzari, or Mark Pavelich? The list goes on, to Bob Collyard, George Morrison, Curt Giles, Mark Taylor, Craig Norwich, Reed Larson, Mike Polich, Mike Antonovich, Mike Zuke, Gordon Wilkie, Keith Magnuson or George Konik. And that doesn't even get us to goaltenders, like Jack McCartan, Willard Ikola, or Tony Esposito.
While we can come up with dozens of players that would make a solid collection of WCHA-only Hobey Baker winners, we can be thankful for what we've got. In years to come, when changing politics and conference alignments confound reason, we can always glance back over the list of Hobey Baker winners to spur nostalgic thoughts about the glory days of college hockey's earlier days.
As a hockey writer at the Minneapolis Tribune, I was invited to join Murray Williamson and Jack Almquist, a couple of hockey people from past years who were key members of the Decathlon Athletic Club in Bloomington, Minn., a luxurious facility that included a few hotel rooms and meeting rooms and a great restaurant, two minutes from Met Sports Center, where the North Stars played. This was in 1980, the same year as the Miracle on Ice Olympics, which was possibly the motivation for their idea — which was to establish national award to honor the player determined by a voting panel to be the best college hockey player in the country,
The award would be named after Hobey Baker, a legendary athlete and sportsman who played at Princeton back in the early 1900s. He was little known in the Midwest, but the organizers' plan was to name it after an icon from the East to prevent any concern with provincialism out West. The statue on the award of a hockey player coming to an abrupt stop, was modeled after former Minnesota and U.S. Olympic star Steve Christoff.
It was fascinating to have been involved in some of the brainstorming sessions and witness the award come to life. A few ideas I had during the award's first few years were adopted, such as presenting it at the NCAA tournament on the traditional day off between the semifinals and final. And later, to get more publicity for the award, to announce the 10 highest vote-getters as finalists, then shortly before the presentation to name a final three, which could be called the "Hobey Hat Trick," leading up to naming the winner.
Being on the selection committee for the first decade couldn't prepare anyone for the surprises, however, starting with the first winner — Neal Broten of Minnesota in 1981. Broten had a good year, coming back to play with Roseau High School linemates- his younger brother Aaron and Bryan "Butsy" Erickson. Aaron, a year younger, set an all-time Gopher scoring record that year with 106 points, Steve Ulseth had 93, and Butsy Erickson 86, all of them far exceeding Neal Broten's 71 points for the high-scoring Gophers. It made sense, though, for the Decathlon Club, which was anxious to maximize the new award and its own welfare, by naming the only 1980 Olympian who returned to college.
That started the lengthy run of Hobey Baker Awards which became quite provincial, with Eastern voters voting for their best while Western voters did the same. Regardless, it stirred more interest in college hockey, and the WCHA's already-rich heritage rose incrementally. During the years from its 1981 inception through 2013, when the WCHA was shattered by the departure of schools that formed the NCHC, there were 16 Hobey Baker winners in 33 years from WCHA teams — a surprisingly high percentage with four major conferences, the WCHA and CCHA in the West and Hockey East and the ECAC in the East.
The most Hobey Baker winners may surprise some. It is the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which has had six players named, and five of them were in its WCHA days. Minnesota is second, with four before the Gophers left with Wisconsin to form the Big Ten Conference for its six hockey teams. After that, North Dakota and Colorado College had two each during their WCHA days, while Denver, Wisconsin and St. Cloud State had one each.
"I'm not sure why we were lucky enough to have so many at UMD," said Mike Sertich, who was the coach of the Bulldogs when defenseman Tom Kurvers won in 1984 and winger Bill Watson won in 1985, and he was still there when Chris Marinucci won it in 1994. "And I recruited the fourth one, Junior Lessard (2004 winner)."
The politics of provincialism entered on several occasions, and Sertich recalled one. "I was never sure how the voting was conducted," Sertich said. "We thought Derek Plante should have won it in 1993, because his impact on our team was so good, and got better each of his four years. But they gave the award to Paul Kariya at Maine that year and he was only a freshman."
Kariya was an exceptional talent, who won the award with the Eastern voters, while Western voters split their votes between Plante and North Dakota's star, Greg Johnson. But every coach can question the award-winner every year, and Sertich certainly wasn't complaining about UMD's half-dozen winners.
Scott Sandelin had taken over coaching UMD when Jack Connolly won it in 2012, after leading UMD to its first NCAA title — the last NCAA crown won by a team from the WCHA. UMD joined the insurrectionists who formed the NCHC, and the Bulldogs flourished to win back-to-back NCAA championships in 2018 and 2019. After finishing in position to make a run at a third straight NCAA championship, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic struck, on the eve of playoffs. The Bulldogs did manage to win a title, though, when flashy junior defenseman Scott Perunovich, who led the Bulldogs in scoring, won the 2019-2020 Hobey Baker Award, after the shortened season.
Minnesota, after Neal Broten won the first Hobey, added a first when Robb Stauber became the first goaltender to win the award, in 1988, and in 1996, center Brian Bonin was Minnesota's third Hobey winner, followed by defenseman Jordan Leopold, the 2004 winner when the Gophers won their first NCAA title in 23 years, as Don Lucia won the first one since Herb Brooks had won three in six years in the 1970s.
North Dakota, which had become the most consistent college hockey power in the country under Gino Gasparini and his successor, Dean Blais, surprisingly only had two of dozens of outstanding players achieve the Hobey. The first was the mercurial center, Tony Hrkac, ringmaster of the "Hrkac Circus," who followed up league and NCAA championships in 1986-87 by winning All-WCHA and All-America, and then the Hobey Baker Award.
Ryan Duncan was the other Fighting Sioux Hobey winner, in 2007.
Colorado College rose to contend for WCHA and national prominence under Don Lucia and Scott Owens, and the Tigers brought home Hobey Baker Awards by Peter Sejna in 2003 and by Marty Sertich in 2005.
Denver, another school that had most of its big-name standouts before there was a Hobey, only has claimed one, and it was by defenseman Matt Carle in 2006. The same circumstances happened at Wisconsin, where only Blake Geoffrion, in 2010, won the Hobey.
St. Cloud State, which was brought up to Division 1 by the legendary Herb Brooks, who then turned the coaching role over to Craig Dahl, didn't win its long Hobey Baker Award until 2013, when Drew LeBlanc captured it.
Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan all failed to win a Hobey Baker Award during their years in the WCHA, but in years to come, while great players on outstanding teams, in other conferences will win their share of Hobeys, it will be decades into the future before any other leagues can reach the level of excellence that almost make the term Hobey Baker Award and WCHA synonymous.
|WCHA Hobey Baker Award Winners|
|1984||Tom Kurvers||Defenseman||Minnesota Duluth|
|1985||Bill Watson||Forward||Minnesota Duluth|
|1987||Tony Hrkac||Forward||North Dakota|
|1994||Chris Marinucci||Forward||Minnesota Duluth|
|2003||Peter Sejna||Forward||Colorado College|
|2004||Junior Lessard||Forward||Minnesota Duluth|
|2005||Marty Sertich||Forward||Colorado College|
|2007||Ryan Duncan||Forward||North Dakota|
|2012||Jack Connolly||Forward||Minnesota Duluth|
|2013||Drew LeBlanc||Forward||St. Cloud State|