Huskies create winner in WCHA

Michael Rand

The 7,051 fans who packed the National Hockey Center for Friday’s game between Minnesota and St. Cloud State symbolized more than just an overwhelming home-ice advantage for the host Huskies.
More than six years ago, the same two teams played to a crowd of the exact same size in St. Cloud’s first-ever game as a member of the WCHA. That game marked the beginning of the Huskies’ uphill march in both the league and the state of Minnesota.
The attendance figures for the first WCHA game and the most recent game are tied for the highest in St. Cloud State history. A couple of days before last weekend’s series, Huskies’ coach Craig Dahl took time after a team practice to reflect on his team’s journey from Division III to Division I independent to WCHA member to WCHA co-leader.
The first thing that he remembered is that it wasn’t easy.
“You’re just trying to start a program from scratch — trying to battle the big boys for recruits,” said Dahl, who has been coaching the Huskies since 1987, their first year as a Division I independent. “You have to be patient, but it’s tough.”
But Dahl saw the program’s potential, as did former St. Cloud State President Brendan McDonald and former Gophers, NHL and U.S. Olympic coach Herb Brooks.
McDonald, who passed away two-and-a-half years ago, saw the move to Division I as an opportunity to generate interest in the school, Dahl said.
Brooks, who coached St. Cloud State in its final year of Division III play, saw a chance to expand the number of options for Minnesota high school hockey players.
With support from WCHA coaches, school administrators and state legislators, the school began the arduous but exciting task of building a competitive Division I team.
Early on, the program ran into the recruiting brick wall the Gophers had built over the course of several decades.
“It was terrible, but I tried not to focus on the problems,” Dahl said. “It gets depressing for a day or two when you lose a recruit, but you have to focus on the ones you get.”
There are plenty to go around, said Brooks, who now serves as an advisor on the “Super Rink” — a complex in Blaine that will feature four Olympic-sized ice rinks — and as a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
His coaching credentials — three national championships in seven years as Gophers coach and the famous gold medal win with the 1980 U.S. Olympic squad — certainly could have landed him a more prestigious job than with a Division III team.
But that wasn’t what he wanted.
“The game’s been good to me. I kind of felt that was a situation where I could give something back,” Brooks said. “There are more kids than there are opportunities for them. I’ve always felt that way. The Gophers are always going to be the Gophers. But there are enough kids to go around.”
St. Cloud State slowly began to prove that theory true, nudging its way into the state recruiting pool and up the WCHA standings.
Dahl said the team’s breakthrough came three seasons ago, when the Huskies battled into overtime of the WCHA playoff championship game before losing to the Gophers.
“After that, we started being able to recruit better players, and they’re the ones that win games,” Dahl said.
Despite falling in the standings in the two following seasons, Dahl knew he had the foundation for a winning team.
In-state recruits Matt Cullen and Mark Parrish — who were both freshmen when the team struggled last year — have been instrumental in leading the team to a 12-7-3 league record and a share of first place.
Dahl realizes there is still a long way to go. Minnesota is celebrating its 75th anniversary while St. Cloud is still cutting teeth.
When asked if the Gophers worry about losing a state popularity contest to the Huskies in the future, junior Casey Hankinson said, “No, not at all. We’ve been here for 75 years. I think our tradition will hold its own.”
Dahl danced around the same subject, saying, “Lots of people would have never predicted the time when we’d have three players drafted and be tied for first place.”
Brooks just sits back and rejoices when he looks at Minnesota and St. Cloud State battling for the WCHA title. Both teams are on course for NCAA berths.
“Wouldn’t that be great?” Brooks asked, with a twinge of pride in two programs — one whose tradition he helped continue and one which he helped start.