Subplots aplenty in St. Cloud State’s breakthrough season

To some, St. Cloud State’s Frozen Four berth is the most surprising one this season. But that disbelief might not be deserved.

At first, there appears much to be surprised about. That the Huskies dismantled two CCHA powerhouses, that they did so with a lineup speckled with just five draft picks and overlooked prospects, and that they played with such confidence having just one NCAA tournament victory to their name in Division I history is a lot to comprehend.

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But there are no raised eyebrows in the Granite City, nor on anyone who has seen the Huskies build a serious playoff contender with a group now led by seniors Drew LeBlanc and Ben Hanowski. It’s taken a series of fortunate events to align the stars for this, St. Cloud State’s first Frozen Four appearance in 27 seasons at the Division I level.

Was it fate? “Well, it turned out that way,” coach Bob Motzko said.

A season that began with question marks largely thanks to injuries is still going. For the first time, the Huskies will play into April.

“As an old alum, I already know it’s blowing up with our people,” Motzko said. “It’s a very, very special time for our hockey program right now.”

St. Cloud State’s season is a story with quite a few subplots. Like the one of sticking it out to work hard and overcome anything, which for this Huskies squad means overcoming broken legs.

Drew LeBlanc, a Hobey Hat Trick finalist, should have never been on this season’s Huskies team. But a broken leg in what was supposed to be his fourth and final season last year and the eventual decision to apply for a medical redshirt is paying off big dividends at the top of the line charts for Motzko.

“That doesn’t happen in the college game, when you get one of the best players in the country to come back for his fifth year,” Motzko said. “It’s even hard to keep some guys for two years or three years. It means an awful lot to this program in what he did.

“I’m so happy for him for all the accolades he’s getting. When he lost that year, it tore him up that he had unfinished business. That was his calling card — he wanted to have this again.”

LeBlanc came back to center a fearsome top line again in 2013. LeBlanc and Hanowski are the names seen on all-conference teams and the like — and they are a big reason why St. Cloud State is Pittsburgh-bound. But this team has much, much more, as Miami and Notre Dame learned when a freshman named Joey Benik exploded onto the scene for four goals and an assist at the Midwest Regional.

Benik came seemingly out of nowhere. But he, too, is a player whose broken leg became his story in a season where he was supposed to burst onto the scene early.

Benik broke his leg, as Motzko described it, within the first 20 minutes of the first practice of the season. Like LeBlanc, there was some debate whether to try to redshirt him for his freshman year. Some.

“I think we talked about it for about 30 seconds, then said let’s go for it and get him back in our lineup,” Motzko said. “Now we’re all starting to see what he’s capable of doing.”

Benik played the weekend with Brooks Bertsch and Cory Thorson, a combination not seen all year. But Motzko liked how it clicked, and it paid dividends at exactly the right time.

“The guys next to me are the ones who make it go,” Thorson said, referring to his linemates. “We get pucks deep, we grind it out. We take hits, we give hits. It’s just a kind of muck-and-grind style of play.”

Thorson, Benik, Hanowski, LeBlanc and the rest make St. Cloud State’s lineup one of the deepest, hardest-working and talented. But for as much talent as they have, Motzko reiterates again and again one of the other big stories of this Huskies team — it’s a group of players as selfless as they are talented.

The lumberjack beards and long hair on Hanowski and five others on the team isn’t for show, it’s for Locks of Love, which uses donations to makes hairpieces for children suffering from medical hair loss. That’s just one example of the rich character that Motzko continued to praise after his team won Sunday.

“That’s probably the biggest thing,” he said. “These kind of teams only roll around once in a while for a coach. They are zero headaches. There’s nothing. They compete hard every day. They practice hard.”

How this story will end, of course, remains to be seen. But while the Frozen Four is a achievement worthy of celebration for a hockey program that has been on the cusp for years, there’s more hockey to be played.

“We just want to keep this train going,” Thorson said. “We have 25 guys in that locker room right now that just worked their tails off all season to make such a big dream come true to make it to the Frozen Four. It’s unbelievable. But we’re not done yet by any means.”