The University of Minnesota-Duluth’s athletic program has had to endure a lot of negative publicity in recent years, from turmoil surrounding former athletic director and current WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod right on through to the success — or lack thereof — of the Bulldog hockey program.
Although UMD won the MacNaughton Cup as the WCHA’s regular-season champion in 1993, the next four seasons were less satisfying. The Bulldogs finished seventh, seventh, fourth and sixth in the conference standings, and last season were swept out of the first round of the league playoffs.
But times change, and with those changes has begun a rejuvenation, one which became most apparent when the Bulldogs defeated in-state rival and traditional powerhouse Minnesota to reach the WCHA Final Five. How did the ‘Dogs get here from there?
First, Bob Corran was named the school’s new athletic director. Corran, fresh from his stint with the University of Calgary, has brought new ideas to the table; meanwhile, the athletic staff has made adjustments to coincide with Corran’s vision for the future.
“We need to start at the ground floor and work our way up,” said Corran. “And part of that means to take a look at the coaches that we have in place and make sure they fit into the atmosphere that we are trying to create. This is done by making sure that UMD is a place for educational excellence and [for] a staff of coaches that play a crucial role in the development of our student-athletes.”
One of those coaches is hockey head man Mike Sertich, a four-time WCHA Coach of the Year. “Mike brings a lot to the university, and I know he is highly regarded in the hockey community in the United States. He has a knack for making the most of our student-athletes, and has the ability to take an average recruit and make [him a] superstar,” said Corran.
“Jim Johnson, Derek Plante and some others were not regarded as blue-chip recruits, [but] Mike has a way of relating with the kids, and getting through to the kids so they can understand him. I think he was also crucial in determining that [NHL great] Brett Hull chose UMD, because prior to that Brett had all but given up on hockey.”
“I think I have a special relationship with all the kids,” said Sertich. “I play many roles in the development of our hockey players. Sometimes I play the role of father, mother, best friend, confidant, counselor — it’s like I have an additional 25 kids on top of my own. But they also realize that I am their coach, and that I have the authority.”
Sertich has spent over 25 years with the UMD hockey program, as a player, as an assistant coach under Gus Hendrickson, and as head coach.
In recent years, UMD hockey has come under fire for letting Duluth-area prospects such as Dave Spehar and Dylan Mills slip away to other programs, most notably Minnesota. Sertich has an answer.
“People need to understand that we do try and recruit those kids that grow up in Duluth. We spend a great deal of time trying to get kids like your Spehars to come and play at UMD. I have no idea why kids do what they do.
“As a kid growing up, you are bombarded with images here in Minnesota about the Gopher hockey program. They have [Midwest Sports Channel] that carries all their games. … Here in Duluth, we don’t have that — we are not the big market like the Twin Cities.”
As a result, some claim that Minnesota-Duluth has turned into a Canadian hockey program, but that doesn’t bother Sertich.
“What do you expect? There are only so many kids in Minnesota, and chances are they are not all going to stay in Minnesota. After that we look heavily into the [United States Hockey League], and also Canada.”
In terms of recruiting, Sertich and his coaching staff of Jim Knapp, Glenn Kulyk and John Hyduke spend a lot of time searching for kids who will make a positive addition, and who can adapt to the program’s environs.
“They need to fit into the program,” said Sertich. “Duluth is a medium-sized city and the majority of our kids come from small cities, smaller than Duluth. The kids have to feel comfortable here, and enjoy the atmosphere and school. [But] a lot of kids like the big-city atmosphere, like the U of M and Wisconsin.”
“I think the majority of the hockey players choose UMD because of the location, and the size of the school,” said Corran. “It’s a great university that has a lot to offer the student-athlete, with an excellent hockey program.”
The program is making some other additions, as well. The Minnesota legislature is expected to pass a bill that would provide $350,000 to help finance the coming women’s Division I team.
“We will find out for sure very soon,” said Corran.
In concert with the funding effort, UMD has been searching for a women’s hockey coach, and the field has been narrowed to five candidates, most notably Shannon Miller, the Canadian women’s Olympic coach, and current men’s assistant Knapp.
“We should have a decision on who our coach will be in the next two weeks,” Corran added.
“I think adding women’s hockey to UMD is a great thing for hockey,” said Sertich. “Women’s hockey is growing by leaps and bounds, and I think that women’s hockey will make a nice addition to colleges such as ours and others around the state.”
UMD has been recruiting heavily this season and has received early commitments from some notables. Kent Sauer, who plays defense for the North Iowa Huskies of the USHL, leads the class.
“He is a big boy, and is very strong on the puck,” said Sertich. “He is excellent in the corners, and is a fast, solid defender who can score and play excellent defense.” Incidentally, Sauer is being touted as one of the best defensemen in the upcoming NHL draft.
Tom Nelson, Sauer’s North Iowa teammate, is also on his way.
“Tom is a great skater who has good hands and should make a nice impact,” said Sertich. Among the Bulldogs’ other recruits, “Jedd Medek is a smaller type of center who has got some nice speed and who is also very crafty. Finally, we have Mark Carlson, who is coming in and should add some depth to our team.”
Expansion of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is also on the coach’s mind, with Mankato State looking to be the first newcomer.
“Mankato has done all that the league has asked of them. It’s up to the WCHA committee to decide if they can come into the league. Personally, I would like to see more teams in the WCHA,” said Sertich.
One-year-old Division I program Nebraska-Omaha is also a possibility to join the league, as well as others climbing the ladder. Sertich is all for it.
“There is some talk about teams like [Division II powerhouse] Bemidji State making the jump to Division I. I would like to see that happen as well. Whatever is good for hockey, I support.”
And the future at UMD? It appears that the guidance of Mike Sertich and the athletic department’s new outlook go hand in hand. The University of Minnesota-Duluth looks to have started a building phase that will take it well into the next century.