Craig Dahl kicked around this decision for months. Since his St. Cloud State Huskies bowed out of the WCHA playoffs in March, really.
Thirty-one days before the start of official practices is just about as far away from an ideal time to shuffle things at the top of a college hockey program as possible. Dahl felt he had to do it anyway.
He got his players together at 1 p.m. Wednesday to tell them of a decision that three fellow St. Cloud State coaches had tried to talk him out of an hour earlier. After 19 years at the school — the last 18 as head coach — Dahl made his exit.
From the time involved in it, his resignation was not a decision made hastily or taken lightly. Rumors had surfaced that Dahl was on his way out — rumors fueled by a third straight bottom-half finish in the WCHA, shrinking crowds at the National Hockey Center and the hiring of the talented Bob Motzko as an assistant coach three months ago, a move many suspected to be the crowning of the Huskies’ head coach in wait.
But why now? Why drop a national coaching search — even if it will, as seems likely, end with Motzko in the seat — on the program with the season fast approaching?
The way Dahl describes it, it wasn’t about the present.
“I had two years left on my contract,” Dahl said Wednesday night. “I liked my guys, I liked my team. I think they’re good, hardworking kids and they do things they’re supposed to. I tried to get the fire going.
“But in the final analysis, when you’re talking to recruits and their parents and they’re asking, ‘Who’s going to be coaching in a year or two? Is it going to be you or Bob?’ I felt it was harming our recruiting. I’ve got some other great options to do and I just felt now is the time because I really trust Bob Motzko and I think he’ll do a great job.”
Dahl said St. Cloud State players were understanding of why he is leaving the program — “I’m doing this for the betterment of the program and for myself,” he emphasized.
He said he was worried about breaking down emotionally during the team meeting but said he stayed composed.
“Many of them [the players] came up to me and lined up outside my office afterward to say some nice things,” Dahl said. “It was only tough because I didn’t want them to feel like I was bailing on them. But because I knew Bob was here, I didn’t feel that way.”
Going on what Dahl has said in the past, he actually might be leaving the team in better shape than in the last few years.
Dahl said before last season that the Huskies were in the middle of a two-year rebuilding cycle caused by a recruiting slump that actually started when the program reached its high point.
In 2001, the Huskies won 31 games and took a major step by winning the WCHA Final Five before falling one game short of the Frozen Four — one of a series of painful NCAA tournament setbacks. That was a team that included stars such as Tyler Arnason, Mark Hartigan and Jon Cullen, but it was at the same time that the Huskies struggled in landing big-name recruits.
The success of 2001 being a mere four years removed made the fall seem all the greater last season, when the Huskies finished 14-23-3 and 8-19-1 in the WCHA. Their ninth-place conference finish was the school’s worst and came on the heels of back-to-back sixth-place finishes.
Although the Huskies average attendance of 5,899 last season was 136 fans over the sellout level, actual crowds were noticeably smaller, according to a story in the St. Cloud Times.
The grumbling of fans led St. Cloud State athletics director Dr. Morris Kurtz to declare his support for Dahl in March, a few weeks after assistant coach Brad Willner was dismissed — the move that led to the opening for Motzko.
Dahl came to St. Cloud State in 1986 as an assistant coach to Herb Brooks, who was central in the effort to get the Huskies to the Division I level. A season later — SCSU’s first in D-I — Brooks left and Dahl took over.
What stands out since then? “It’s going to sound funny,” he said, “but it was the process of bringing the program from the beginning — starting brand new — and the whole process of bringing it to the WCHA Final Five playoff championship. We were third [place], second [place] until the last three years. That was a nice achievement.”
Dahl said he’s going to work in St. Cloud for the Principal Financial Group, a Des Moines, Iowa, company that manages retirement plans and provides other financial services.
It could be a big change from the hockey coaching life to a 9-to-5 existence, but Dahl isn’t expecting that to be difficult.
“I’m excited to work for people that share the same type of principles and values that I’ve had about helping people and that type of thing, which is what we’ve done with our guys,” he said.
Whether it was intended that way or not, that statement could be perceived to be a slap at some above him in the St. Cloud State athletic department.
It’s clear, however, that Dahl is leaving on good terms with those left in the hockey program. He said Motzko and assistant coach Fred Harbinson told him not to be a stranger. He plans on making the trip to Marquette, Mich., for the team’s season-opening series at Northern Michigan and will attend games in St. Cloud.
But it’s also clear that Dahl is prepared to move on.
“It’s Bobby’s program now,” he said.