Doggedness

15 Apr

The University of Minnesota Duluth claimed its third national championship this past Saturday, its second in a row in a run of three straight national title game appearances. Unlike many Duluthians, I have no personal ties to UMD save living in the same city as its campus, and as I’m still eagerly awaiting the creation of a hockey program at my alma mater (I expect I’ll be waiting a while), their exploits provide reliable entertainment in the meantime. College hockey, in my book, will never match the intensity and the pageantry of the high school game, but I make a handful of Bulldog games each season, and when two-thirds of the national champion’s roster is comprised of Minnesotans, I’ll know a thing or two about the players on the ice.

Several of their key players were true Minnesota high school stars who I saw many times in their glory days. Hunter Shepard put together some of the most dominant goaltending performances I’ve ever seen when in high school at Grand Rapids. (Anyone looking to beat him really should hire Mike Randolph as a temporary consultant.) I first saw Scott Perunovich when he was a sophomore at Hibbing, where he immediately awed me by saucing passing on to the tape of his teammates’ sticks from 100 feet away. This didn’t stop the Hibbing mom in front of me from informing him he was a puck hog all game long, but his boundless talent was obvious. But there was also Nick Wolff, who lit up a couple of Musketeers in the championship game; I remember his Eagan coach, Mike Taylor, calling him a “human rain delay” when he wandered into a press conference a bit behind schedule. Dylan Samberg emulated Kyle Schmidt’s 2011 NCAA championship snow angel after he scored an overtime championship-winner of his own for Hermantown in 2017, and between his two titles as a Hawk and two at UMD, his past four seasons have ended in championships. Not a bad run.

This Frozen Four, the Bulldogs forsook the Schmidt-style drama and just overpowered opponents. Their games in the regional final in Allentown were more stressful than the final two in Buffalo; lulled into a trap, it appeared they might face the exits against scrappy Bowling Green in the first round. But after a convenient bounce knotted it up, the game never seemed in doubt. This group has a superb record in close games in recent playoff games, a testament to both a lack of panic and a steady system that relies on the team’s depth to grind opponents into submission. Once they’d staked themselves to an early lead in the national championship game, they settled into a sequence of steady offensive zone cycles that we Duluth East fans watch all season long, controlling the puck and probing for more. I’m biased, but I can’t name a more appealing style of hockey than that steady, physical brand of northern Minnesota control.

The title cements UMD’s place atop the college hockey ladder for the time being. Scott Sandelin has built a powerhouse on the hill overlooking Lake Superior, and he has done it through a steady process that draws attention only via the results on the ice. While his first two Frozen Fours had a handful of standout players who really elevated the team, that 2011 title put the Dogs on elite recruiting footing. Their depth now is such that no single Bulldog really stands out above the rest, and they can bring a relentless assault from four lines and six defensemen. They can afford to absorb good-but-not-great point totals from the likes of a Riley Tufte, who’s a reliable contributor but not the Casey Middelstadt-level first-rounder some expected him to be. And while they lose a few players to the pros early, as all college teams now do, there’s also some tradition of sticking around that players like Andy Welinski, Alex Iafallo, and Dom Toninato established in the years preceding these titles. Winning culture feeds on itself.

UMD also sits in one of the most attractive recruiting grounds in college hockey, and Sandelin has taken full advantage. While they’ll never claim every local star, they now keep many who previously might have looked elsewhere. (As one who left and came back myself, I will never begrudge the Dave Spehars and Ryder Donovans of the world for trying different paths.) The Bulldogs run a drama-free program, which is no small feat. Sandelin’s accolades are piling up now that he’s joined an elite group of coaches with three national titles, and opportunity may come knocking, though I could also see him being too content with what he’s built at UMD to consider moving on. He’s become an unassuming local legend, and I may even forgive him for choosing to live in Hermantown. (All joking aside, that relationship has been a beneficial match, both as a recruiting pipeline for the Bulldogs and as an attraction to that city in a swamp behind the mall.)

For now, even us Duluthians who aren’t born-and-bred Bulldogs (or, perhaps, bulldogs of a different litter) can thank this group for bringing glory to our city. They’ve done it the right way, they’ve done it with style, and while NCAA playoff hockey can be the ficklest of the major college sports, on paper, there’s no reason to think the success will slow down anytime soon. Right now, Duluth can stake a claim to the hockey capital of America, and don’t think we won’t revel in that crown for as long as we can.

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