ST. PAUL, Minn. – Scott Sandelin knew this day would come for the University of Minnesota Duluth. Knew it from the moment he arrived on campus as the 12th head coach in the history of the school’s men’s hockey program.
Why else would he have spent time designing jewelry?
“I’ve had a design on the ring planned since I got here,” Sandelin said after his Bulldogs defeated Michigan on Saturday to win the first NCAA Championship in program history. “Now, I get to put it into reality.”
After more than eight decades of Bulldog hockey, it might be hard to believe, but the first NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship in program history is, in fact a reality. It might not have seemed like a possibility, however, when Sandelin took the job in 2000, seven years removed from the Bulldogs’ last NCAA tournament appearance. Even the Bulldogs’ rink, the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, came up short, measuring 190 feet from end to end rather than the traditional 200 feet. Still, Sandelin believed enough in the opportunity Duluth presented to leave his job as an assistant coach at his alma mater, North Dakota, on the heels of an NCAA Championship victory.
“I left a pretty good position,” Sandelin said, “but I was willing to accept that challenge, because I believed you could win here. And sometimes you’ve got to go through some rough patches, but we’ve had a great staff that’s worked hard.”
This year, the Bulldogs opened their brand new home in Duluth at AMSOIL Arena, and this fall, they’ll raise their first-ever NCAA Championship banner there. Having grown up in Hermantown, Minn., less than 10 miles away, senior forward Kyle Schmidt can appreciate exactly what it means to bring the trophy home.
“It’s great for the players, coaches, everyone here,” said Schmidt, who scored 3:22 into overtime to win the championship 3-2, “but I think it’s been way too long of a time coming for everyone in Duluth and the Twin Ports.”
“It’s been such a special experience for everyone involved,” said freshman center Max Tardy, a Duluth native who scored his first career goal in Saturday’s game, “for all the fans, everyone in Duluth, the whole UMD Bulldog community.”
Junior center Jack Connolly, another Duluth native and an assistant captain of the Bulldogs, couldn’t be more proud of his team’s performance.
“This year’s definitely been special,” Connolly said. “We knew we had all the potential in the world on paper. We just needed to go out there and execute on the ice. We had a phenomenal year. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. They worked hard, day in and day out, at practice and in games.”
Connolly had a glimpse of what it looked like to win an NCAA Championship in his freshman season, when he watched his older brother, Chris Connolly, win with Boston University at the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four in Washington, D.C.
“He won his freshman year,” the younger Connolly said, “and I couldn’t have been happier for him, and for me to get one alongside him, I’m really happy for my parents. They have two kids who have won national championships, and not too many people in the country can say that.”
Connolly’s seen several NCAA Championships come home to Duluth in his life. He was 12 years old when the UMD women’s hockey team won the inaugural NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship, the first of five. When the fifth of those championships came home to Duluth a year ago, followed by the football team’s NCAA Division II Championship, it only stoked the Bulldogs’ competitive fires.
“It’s obviously motivating to see them have success,” Schmidt said, “but at the same time you want it so bad. And I think now we have it hopefully we can start racking them up.”
“It’s always nice to see Duluth teams win national championships,” Connolly said. “Our football team won one earlier this year. This was our ultimate goal, to get down to St. Paul and take home some hardware.”
Standing on the precipice of that goal, the Bulldogs’ nerve and resolve never wavered.
“We felt right at home,” Connolly said. “We had great support from everybody, nice and close for our family and friends to come watch us play.”
At times on Saturday night, it sounded as if half the population of the Twin Ports had migrated south to the Twin Cities. With many fans from the University of North Dakota departing after the Fighting Sioux’s loss to Michigan on Thursday – and many others sticking around to support UND alum Sandelin and a fellow WCHA team – chants of “U-M-D!” echoed throughout the packed Xcel Energy Center, often drowning out the cheers of a vocal Michigan section.
“It’s kind of hard not to get up and play 100 percent when you have 19,000 people,” said freshman forward J.T. Brown, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Performer after finishing with a goal and two assists in the wins against Michigan and Notre Dame.”
“It was a great atmosphere for the kids to be in,” Sandelin said. “I thought the whole tournament was tremendous. It’s a phenomenal experience. I mean, this is one of the best venues you could have in this tournament, if not the best. It’s a hockey city. It’s a great building and a great atmosphere.”
That atmosphere was filled with tension after 40 minutes, as the Bulldogs and Wolverines headed into the third period tied at two, and a scoreless third period only produced more anxiety as the Championship game headed to overtime for the 14th time in NCAA history (and the fourth overtime championship game in St. Paul). The Bulldogs, however, having played 14 overtime games already this season, kept an even keel as they headed to the extra session.
“We found a little knack for getting it done in overtime,” Brown said, “and that’s one of the things that we did pride ourselves on going into the overtime period.”
Three minutes and change into OT, Schmidt scored, and now, the Bulldogs and their fans have something else to pride themselves on.
Said Connolly, “This is definitely a special moment in UMD Bulldog history.”