Face-off with tradion: U hockey might change exclusive recruiting policy

Tim Nichols

The recruiting practices of Gophers coach Doug Woog have been questioned ever since he took the helm of the men’s hockey program during the 1985-86 season.
Following legendary coach John Mariucci’s lead, Woog recruits only players from Minnesota to play for the Gophers. The team has been successful far more often than not throughout Woog’s 14-year tenure, making 12 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament (a streak that ended last season) and producing a pair of Hobey Baker Award winners.
But today, Minnesota is the youngest team in the WCHA, a squad that lacks the experience and game savvy of teams such as North Dakota and Colorado College, and for the second straight season is likely to finish in the lower half of the conference.
The Gophers used to be the darlings of the state — “Minnesota’s Pride on Ice.” But now, the program is feeling the heat from critics in the media and the stands like never before. Why?
“We never lost until last year,” Woog said. “Three years ago, we shared the (WCHA) title. So we’ve got to get back up there, and some of the critics will change their tunes.
“(The criticism) is not fun. But it’s supposed to be like a marriage. Just do your part and do the best you can.”
If that’s really the case, perhaps Minnesota could use some marriage counseling, because the program seems to be on the rocks.

Cream of the Crop
At the peak of Woog’s tenure, Minnesota could essentially point to the top 10 high school players in the state, offer them scholarships, shake hands and call it a deal.
But that doesn’t happen anymore. Players in Minnesota are now confronted with more options than before, with the opportunity to play in the United States Hockey League (USHL) — a junior hockey organization — along with the growth of Division I hockey programs at St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State-Mankato and Bemidji State.
One player who escaped the Gophers’ grasp is Cottage Grove, Minn., product and Colorado College senior, Scott Swanson.
“I think the USHL exposes players to other options,” Swanson said. “Once they go away and get away from Mom and Dad and actually see that there are other options out there, it opens their eyes a little bit. I think the USHL is probably the biggest reason why some of the guys are going elsewhere.”
The 20-year-old USHL serves as a training ground for players who are either not quite ready for the level of play in college hockey, or trying to improve their chances of getting a scholarship.
Either way, the USHL has been relatively ignored by Woog and his recruiting staff. The only player on the current roster who spent significant time in the junior league is senior Reggie Berg. He played for the Des Moines Buccaneers during the 1994-95 season.
But Woog is quick to point out that the USHL might be overrated, and even a roster full of USHL veterans wouldn’t be a cure-all for a sagging program.
“There’s been very few franchise-type players (from the USHL) that have been impacting our program and then gone on to the NHL,” Woog said. “Dave Snuggerud is the last guy who played junior hockey and went to the NHL. He’s the only one I can think of who played and achieved an elite level.”
Woog seems unsure of the talent in the USHL, but he does admit that Minnesota will explore its recruiting options in the junior league more often in the future, primarily because the youthful Gophers are more green than gold.
“We know we have to get older,” Woog said. “We’re the youngest team in the league, not only in age but also in fewest games played. And that has added up because of the juniors.”
But the fact remains that many of the best players in Minnesota are not going to the University.
Therefore, is a change in order?
“(Former Gopher) Neal Broten said on (Mark) Rosen’s show that I should continue recruiting the same way,” Woog said. “There’s an NHLer. But then the issue is why aren’t we getting the best ones?”

Oh, Canada
Some critics have suggested that the solution to the Gophers’ recent problems on the ice lies north of the border.
A great white north of opportunity could be passing Woog and the Gophers by. Is the next great player in British Colombia or Newfoundland?
Around the league, many of the coaches would say yes — if you can convince the players to come south of the border.
“In Canada, kids want to develop in as competitive a league as possible,” said Denver coach and Canada native George Gwozdecky. “In order to be in a competitive league, many players have to leave home. (Those leagues) do an outstanding job of marketing and promoting their product to good 15-, 16-year-old kids.”
But if a player goes to the Major Junior A leagues in Canada, they become ineligible for the NCAA. That’s made the battle for the remaining second-tier hockey players extremely competitive.
One of the latest stars to come out of Canada was Winnipeg’s Tyler Arnason. The USHL’s leading scorer last year decided to enroll at St. Cloud State. Even though his skill as a scorer was something desperately needed at Minnesota, Woog chose not to pursue him.
For a number of reasons, ranging from academics to concerns over whether Arnason would succeed in Minnesota to his Canadian roots, Woog said, “Arnason, at that time, was probably not in our mix.”

The Big School
One coach who repeatedly laments the Gophers’ recruiting superiority is Minnesota-Duluth coach Mike Sertich. His us-vs.-them attitude — a mixture of one part disdain for the University, one part envy — is rooted in his belief that Duluth does not get the respect reserved for Minnesota.
“You’ve got nothing better to do today, so you’re going to pick on Duluth,” Sertich joked when asked about his uphill battle with the Gophers for recruits.
Sertich said Minnesota continues to attract some of the best high school players in the state, just not as many. Of the five WCHA coaches who were interviewed for this story, all said they would love to be in Minnesota’s position.
But how much validity goes with that when the best teams in the league — North Dakota and Colorado College — are winning with rosters stocked with USHL players and Canadians?
“Before, Minnesota would get the top nine or 10 high school players, now its the top six or seven,” Sertich said. “You just can’t get everyone that you did before. You’re not allowed to have an extended number of kids.”
Sertich also said the lack of a junior varsity team hurt Minnesota. Before it was eliminated in college hockey, Minnesota was able to keep about 35 players on its roster, and could develop these players. Not anymore.
Another factor in the Gophers’ recent demise is the early signing period. Prior to the early 1990s, schools were able to sign players as late as April of their senior years.
But now, the time to sign players is the early signing period in November of their senior years. The competition for the in-state players has become very tight, and the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds a high school player’s potential has grown.
“(The early signing period is) killing us,” Woog said. “You can’t measure the player’s physical development and the mental factor — those are the two big x-factors. You don’t know if he will continue to grow, and you don’t know how he’s going to handle it mentally.”
A Family Affair
Not all of the comments directed toward the hockey program have been negative.
There is still a rich tradition that has been built throughout the seasons, extending back to the days when Mariucci and Herb Brooks paced behind the bench.
One current player who said he still believes strongly in the Minnesota tradition is second generation Gopher, sophomore Erik Westrum.
His father, Pat, patrolled the blue line for Minnesota as a defensemen from 1968 to 1970.
“To grow up — ever since you were five and laced on your first pair of skates,” Erik Westrum said. “Your parents talk about Gopher hockey. I never even played with another team until I was 12 years old.”
Westrum’s brain was saturated with maroon and gold before he could tie his own skates, and that’s the way it is for many players in the state.
Perhaps, he says, it’s time to abandon the “Pride on Ice” advertising strategy.
“(The critics) see the advertising of U of M hockey being all Minnesotans,” Westrum said. “And that’s just something that they took out for an ad. They overblow it. I know that when my brother (backup goaltender Ryan Westrum) was coming here, it wasn’t just because it was Minnesota, but it was because there is family here.”
The family factor is big, but the opinions of the alumni and blue-line clubs are also important. According to them, Minnesota should stick with the status quo.
“20-to-1, I hear, `Stay with the Minnesota guys,'” Woog said. “But rumors are like icebergs, you only need to see 10 percent of them. You would need to do a survey to get a correct opinion.”

Tradition vs. Trophies
Imagine walking into Mariucci Arena to see the top-ranked Gophers several years from now. Then the public address announcer says during the introductions, “Starting at forward, from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan …”
“I think it would be strange (if non-Minnesotans were on the team),” Westrum said. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with a team that’s all Minnesotan.”
Would having a non-Minnesotan on the team seem strange, after so many years without one? Certainly. The first non-Minnesotan to cross into the state in about 15 years would have to be more than just physically tough, but mentally rock solid. He would suddenly become the most scrutinized man in the state.
But is the tradition so important that it should not be broken? Or is enough enough, and is it time to break ranks and find the great non-Minnesotan hope?
“The tradition has really been spun by me,” Woog said. “It’s a self-imposed situation, and it doesn’t have to be that way. We had a feeling that we can win it, and we were close to it with Minnesota players for a number of years. Now I think it’s an issue that we have to get back to the level where we can compete for that.
“I hate to give up what we’re doing, but … I guess that’s where you can leave it, with a `but.’ We’re leaving it open.”