This Week in the WCHA: February 24, 2000

Losing a legend, part two

How could Duluth, Minn., ever forget the joy Mike Sertich brought? If there was some way to block out the last two years of his tenure as coach at Minnesota-Duluth, there would be nothing but exemplaries to be said about the man who took the Bulldogs agonizingly close to a national championship.

But alas, in a world where the question so often asked is, "What have you done for me lately?" it became ever more apparent that Sertich’s time was short with the Bulldogs.

After winning just seven games last season and finishing ninth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, his team improved this season, but not to the point where it would look like Sertich could return a national power to the northern Minnesota city.

Maybe it’s better that Sertich resigned on Tuesday, or was forced out, or however you want to call it. But here’s hoping no one ever forgets:

The 1983-84 season. 29-12-2. WCHA regular-season and playoff champions. Not one, not two, not three, but four overtimes before seeing NCAA title dreams fade with a loss to Bowling Green in the championship game in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The 1984-85 season. Even better at 36-9-3. Again, the double in the WCHA. And again, frustratingly close to a NCAA title that would never come. This time, a three-overtime loss to RPI (Remember when RPI meant the team and not the Ratings Percentage Index?) in the semifinals.

Hobey Baker Award winners Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson and Chris Marinucci.

A three-peat of league Coach of the Year awards, in 1982-82, 1983-84 and 1984-85. He added another in 1992-93 and a national Coach of the Year award in 1983-84.

How could anyone in Duluth forget? For the last 18 years, Sertich has been UMD hockey. And UMD hockey has been Sertich, for better or worse as far as his health is concerned.

Most recently, he missed games early this season while struggling with pneumonia.

But the joy brought to Duluth — even though it wasn’t in the form of a national title — can never be forgotten.

"People don’t know this part of it, but with Mike in the mid-80s run he had there, it was so important to the area," said WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod, who played with Sertich at Duluth in the ’60s and was the athletic director at the school from 1983 to 1996.

"Like a lot of other (areas), there was a real downturn in the economy. There wasn’t a whole lot to be happy about or be cheerful about in that area. It was just amazing to me how the whole area caught on to the team and got on the coattails of what it was doing. I think it made not only the team, the institution, but the whole area around Duluth feel a lot better about themselves and have something to feel good about and cheer about. The timing was so good for the area."

WCHA coaches have taken a much different tone this week to Sertich’s resignation this week than they did for Minnesota State’s Don Brose last week. Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer, one of Sertich’s closest friends in the league, seemed genuinely angry about how the situation shook out.

"I’m very sad about it because it’s where college athletics has gone," Sauer said. "You take a guy that’s given everything to the program, to the sport of college hockey, and there’s so much more to what we at the college level we do, and Sertie’s a great example of that. Developing players, graduating people, promoting the program, standing up and promoting the university. Then, to have a decision made because he had a couple bad seasons, that’s frustrating at this level.

"There used to be more to it than just wins and losses, but the way it’s going, it appears down the road, that’s all that’s going to matter."

One of the things everyone has said about Sertich is that he never changed. Same dry wit, same attitude, same dedication to the sport.

"I’ve known Sertie for many, many years and I hated to see him leave the league," St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said. "He was a character and we all liked him a lot. He’s the same coach he was when he won the league title, just didn’t have the same kind of talent. Unfortunately, it probably caused him to decide to retire earlier than maybe he would have."

Sertich will leave UMD after 18 years as head coach. Sauer has been around the league the longest, just a shade longer than Sertich with 18 years at Wisconsin. But now Dahl will be No. 2 on the longevity list and Minnesota coach Don Lucia, in his seventh overall and first with the Gophers, will be third.

"It just seems like everybody wants to win immediately and it’s just not possible that every team is going to win every year," Lucia said. "As a coach, you just try to do the best with the talent you have available. Whenever they had the talent assembled at Duluth, they had great teams."

Oh, with Brose’s retirement at Minnesota State and Sertich’s resignation at Duluth, you wonder what Tim Watters is thinking right about now.

Just a thought.

Do you want the Cup or not?

Faced with an opportunity to kick sand in the eyes of its closest rival, Wisconsin this week will apparently err on the side of neutrality.

Wisconsin needs a win over Minnesota to clinch the MacNaughton Cup outright, or a North Dakota loss against Minnesota State. In the event that happens, though, Sauer said his team will not take the Cup for a skate around the ice at Mariucci Arena.

I can hear the Badgers fans now: "Why not?"

Well, first of all, that’s getting a bit too far ahead of ourselves. The Badgers may need to win at Mariucci, something they have done only once. That was last season, when the Badgers took advantage of plenty of Gophers mistakes to earn a win and a tie near the end of the season.

The case could be made that UW is a much better team than last year (and who would argue with that?), but this is still Mariucci Arena and this is still the Border Battle. Take nothing for granted.

Sauer said, should his team win the regular-season title this weekend, there will be a ceremony before next Saturday’s game against Colorado College. (Yes, that is Saturday. The schedule was finally confirmed this week with the Wisconsin men’s basketball team playing on Sunday, allowing the hockey team to go Friday and Saturday against CC.)

Don’t be surprised if there’s plenty of hooting and hollering going on in the Badgers dressing room if they clinch this weekend, but don’t expect much taunting of the Minnesota fans.

You never know when that will come back to haunt you.

But this week’s matchup took an interesting turn on Wednesday, when Lucia found out starting goaltender Adam Hauser has mononucleosis and will miss two to three weeks.

"There’s not much you can do," Lucia said. You can say that again.

Pete Samargia, who would normally back up Hauser, had knee surgery three weeks ago, according to Lucia, and isn’t quite ready to come back.

That leaves freshman walk-on Erik Young, who has not played a single minute of a regular-season collegiate game, to face the No. 1 team in the country. His only action came in an exhibition against Valerenga of Norway in December. He played the third period and did not allow a goal.

"It’s certainly going to be a big difference between what happened there and getting your first start against the No. 1 team in the country," Lucia said. "We’re going to have to try to protect him as best as we can. We can’t ask Erik to win the game for us, we just want him to make the saves that he should and give us the best game he possibly can.

"Our guys have to be mentally strong in front of him. And he has to try to be mentally strong and try to make the saves. He’s going to let in some goals, but (has to try) not to get rattled and try to keep looking ahead and not get down if he lets in a goal."

It’s to the point now where Erik Westrum’s younger brother has come in to play in practice and will be the backup on the bench this weekend.

It’s unfortunate that this may take away from what could still be a very good series. It’s not enough that it’s a Border Battle weekend: the Gophers need points and the Badgers want the Cup. And discounting the Gophers would be a mistake since the Badgers have still won only one game in the new Mariucci Arena.

That was last year, and appears to have helped the Badgers’ confidence going into this weekend. But can you imagine the storyline that would be playing out this weekend should the No. 1 team in the nation still be looking for its first win at the home of the Gophers?

And that talk of the MacNaughton Cup being somehow unimportant to the Badgers? Hogwash, Sauer said.

"Everybody thinks it’s not a concern. I’m happy as hell that we’ve got a chance to win it," Sauer said. "But we’ve got a lot of hockey. If we want to be really successful this year, our last game is April 8 (in the NCAA championship game). There’s a lot of hockey to play and I didn’t want to put a lot of energy into winning the WCHA championship and then kind of fall flat."

What’s at stake

Suddenly, Colorado College finds itself on the outside looking in.

After being swept by Minnesota State at home last weekend, the Tigers are in sixth place, two points out of fifth with two weeks remaining. And those two weeks are two of the toughest around.

CC hosts St. Cloud State this weekend before finishing the season at Wisconsin, where the Badgers are expected to be presented the MacNaughton Cup. Not easy.

North Dakota needs two points to clinch second place since this weekend marks its last conference series of the season.

St. Cloud, in third place, has a one-point lead on Mankato and a two-point lead on Minnesota. Mankato hosts North Dakota this weekend and probably needs to get at least one win. The Mavericks are at Minnesota-Duluth next week, so points this weekend would probably clinch a top-five spot.

Minnesota and CC might end up fighting for that fifth spot and may meet in the first round of the playoffs.

Happy to be in control

It’s a nervous time of the year for anyone involved in a race for the best place in the standings, but Dahl likes where his team is right now.

And why not? In third place, everyone is coming after his St. Cloud State team, rather than it trying to play catch-up.

"We like it because we’re not looking up," Dahl said. "We’re looking at people trying to catch us. Our fate’s in our own hands, we don’t have to rely on anybody else to help us out. That’s always the way you want it. Then you can’t blame anything or anybody."

The biggest thing the Huskies coach is worrying about this week is not the fact that he, or anyone else, doesn’t really know which CC team to expect — the scoring kind or the non-scoring kind — it’s Tigers goaltender Jeff Sanger.

SCSU ran into a hot goalie two weekends ago at Wisconsin, when Graham Melanson foiled the Huskies. Sanger is another one of those goalies that has that potential.

"A goaltender can have a great weekend and really hurt you," Dahl said.

And he knows.

Underappreciated player of the week

Dylan Mills, Minnesota

Slimming down provided quite a bit more bulk for Dylan Mills.

The junior, who, according to Lucia, dropped 15 pounds before the season, has evolved this season into one of the WCHA’s leading offensive defensemen.

Mills leads the league in scoring by a defenseman with 23 points. 14 of those have come on the power play, where he has seven goals. That’s quite a step from last season, when he had 14 total points and just two goals overall.

"He’s improved a lot this year," Lucia said. "He’s one of the guys that’s really exceeded my expectations from the start of the year to where we are now."

Losing the weight has been one of the reasons for his extra scoring this season.

"That extra step of quickness has helped him and the extra stamina has helped him play more minutes," Lucia said. "We’ve worked hard with him to develop his ability to one-time the puck. I think that’s how he scores most of his goals, sneaking in, getting a pass from Johnny Pohl and one-timing the puck."

Around the league

North Dakota: So much for any offensive problems.

Last week, UND coach Dean Blais expressed some concern with his team’s recent trouble putting goals on the scoreboard.

So his players scored 10 against Minnesota-Duluth on Friday.

We hope Blais is satisfied.

Alaska-Anchorage: What looked so promising for so long has turned into another road trip for the Seawolves in the first round.

After staying alive with a 5-3-2 record over 10 games, UAA has lost its last five and will be relegated to a bottom-division finish.

Michigan Tech: With 30 losses this season and a chance for four more, the Huskies could set what is believed to be an NCAA record for the most losses in a season.

Should the Huskies be swept at Denver next weekend (they have this weekend off) and lose their first-round playoff series, they would have 34 losses this season, one worse than Colorado College’s 1987-88 team, which lost 33 games.

It would, at the very least, be a WCHA record for futility.

Final note

In the spirit of the 20th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, this story, courtesy of Sauer:

Wisconsin and Colorado College were set to play a two-game series at the Broadmoor World Arena the same weekend of the last weekend of the 1980 Olympics. As I’m sure many of you know, then-Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson is the father of Mark Johnson, who played on the U.S. team.

Bob Johnson made the trip to Colorado Springs instead of going to Lake Placid, N.Y., to see the Olympics.

"Bob walked into the rink on Friday afternoon after the USA team had defeated Russia and we were getting ready to play that night," said Sauer, who was then the coach at CC. "He walked into the Broadmoor and the first thing I said to him was, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You should be in Lake Placid.’ He said, ‘Well, everybody wants me to go, but I have to stay with the team.’"

After the Friday night game, which Wisconsin won 6-2, Bob Johnson caught a flight to Lake Placid in time to see the game that clinched the gold medal for the U.S.

That left Wisconsin assistants Bill Howard and Grant Standbrook to coach the team. But, according to Sauer, they stood at opposite ends of the bench and yelled at each other about how to do it.

CC won the Saturday night game 7-6 in overtime. But Bob Johnson got to see his son win the gold medal. Probably a good trade.