When the University of Minnesota defeated Michigan Tech 4-2 Saturday night in the Boston Garden, it was more than a mere upset of the nation's top-ranked team. The Gophers were not only the first all-U.S. team in 25 years to win the NCAA hockey championship, but their 19-man squad was made up entirely of homebred Minnesotans. The atmosphere was heady enough that one group of Gopher fans, anxious to draw the battle lines as clearly as possible, had festooned the Garden's balcony with a sign reading GO AMERICANS (MINNESOTA), BEAT CANADIANS (TECH).
Though that seemed unduly chauvinistic, the Gopher win did come as further evidence, if it were needed, that hockey in the U.S.—or at least in Minnesota—is on the upswing. In the locker room afterward, savoring his school's title, Coach Herb Brooks proclaimed, "I invite other teams to come into Minnesota and recruit our high school boys, too. There's enough to go around, believe me."
Being magnanimous was probably the least Brooks could do under the circumstances. Michigan Tech had handed Minnesota two regular-season defeats a couple of weeks earlier and, buoyed by their No. 1 national ranking and the noisy presence of 650 fans from back home in the hockey-mad Upper Peninsula town of Houghton (pop. 6,200), the Huskies fully expected to do it again. All but six of Tech's players were Canadian imports, who tend to be older and more seasoned than American college boys.
But the Huskies reckoned without the stubborn goaltending of Minnesota's Brad Shelstad, who made 34 saves, and they also ran afoul of a pesky, fast-skating Gopher attack that produced a goal apiece by four players. One of them, Defenseman John Perpich, was wrongly identified in the program as Joe Perpich, and as far as advance billing was concerned, the others were guys named Joe, too. Michigan Tech got in some slam-bang checking, sending Gophers sprawling all over the ice, but as a Tech rooter sardonically complained, "The trouble is, they keep getting up."
The Gopher performance reflected credit on Minnesota's rabid, statewide amateur hockey program, which numbers 52,000 players ranging from Mite Leaguers to gray-haired, arthritic Seniors. By tapping so handy a hotbed, the Gophers figured to produce a big winner eventually, but the happy day scarcely seemed so close. Minnesota finished last in the 10-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association two years ago, and after ex-Gopher star Brooks quit his job last year as an insurance salesman to become coach, the Gophers finished below .500 again. They had nothing resembling a real offensive threat—Mike Polich, the team's leading scorer, was 35th in the WCHA—and prospects seemed little brighter when the club started out this year at 0-4-1.
But then the Gophers began burrowing to daylight. "The pieces were all there," Brooks says of the turnaround. "It was only a matter of putting them in the right places." One of the pieces was Shelstad, who developed at Minneapolis' Southwest High as an old-fashioned Glenn Hall-style standup goalie. He avoids flopping and otherwise leaving his feet simply because it would take him too long to get up; as befits the goaltender of a Cinderella team, he skates so slowly he might be on glass slippers. "It's all right to be flashy," he says, "but the important thing is to stop the puck."
To put some punch in the offense, the boyish, intense Brooks turned the absence of individual stars into a virtue by-emphasizing a balanced attack. Borrowing from the proverb-happy Russians, he put up a sign in Minnesota's home locker room, PASSES COME FROM THE HEART, NOT THE STICK. In Boston, noting that Minnesota was the only one of the tournament's four teams without at least one All-America player, he told his squad, "Don't worry about individuals. It's a team that's going to win this."
But Minnesota almost carried selflessness too far. In its semifinal against Boston University Thursday night, the Gophers blew leads of 3-0 and 4-2. partly because Polich worked too much at setting up picture-book plays from his center position, too little on addressing the puck to the BU net. "For God's sake, pull the trigger, Mike!" Brooks yelled. With 13 seconds left in the game and Minnesota shorthanded, Polich spirited the puck away from a Terrier defenseman and pulled the trigger for the goal that won it 6-5, dashing BU's hopes for a third NCAA title in four years.
The next night in the other semifinal Tech squeezed past Harvard 6-5 in overtime, which certainly took something out of the Huskies, who had 24 fewer hours than Minnesota to recover for the finals. The perennially strong Huskies last won an NCAA championship in 1965 with a tender sophomore goalie named Tony Esposito. Since then they have several times suffered reversals of the kind that occurred in 1971 when they were No. 1 in the country only to be knocked out of the WCHA play-offs by seventh-place North Dakota.
It was with a practiced air of forbearance, then, that their coach, John MacInnes, shrugged off the loss to Minnesota, saying, "We played a good game but the puck just wouldn't go in for us." Blame Brad Shelstad. Arms and legs flailing like those of a disjointed scarecrow, Shelstad so thwarted the Huskies that it took fully 33 minutes for Right Wing George Lyle to slip the first Tech goal by him. That narrowed Minnesota's lead to 2-1 but the Gophers added two more goals in the last period while Tech's heaviest hitters were vainly firing away at Shelstad. Mike Zuke, a mailman's son from the Canadian border town of Sault Ste. Marie, finally delivered a Tech goal—with 48 seconds to go—to end it at 4-2.
Yet it was not a clear-cut case of the good guys holding off the foreign marauders. Things were more complicated than that.
Lest he seem to be on an anti-Canadian crusade, Minnesota's Herb Brooks allowed that his new NCAA champions would gladly welcome "any exceptional Canadian player" to go with all those native sons. Meanwhile, an all-tournament team was named—Brad Shelstad was MVP—and on it was Steve Jensen of Michigan Tech. Jensen, a freshman, was recruited in suburban Minneapolis, of all places. Herb Brooks could be right—there may be enough talent in the slate for everyone.