Classic Defense Did In The Defender

At the NCAA hockey championship, North Dakota beat 1981 titlist Wisconsin with "professional" D
April 05, 1982

The 1982 NCAA hockey championship came down to the third period of the seventh game between the two best teams in the country. When it was all over, the victorious Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota were chanting giddily outside their dressing room: "No-no-no-nobody messes with the Green Machine! No-no-no-nobody messes with the Green Machine!" Not Badger Bob Johnson's erstwhile No. 1-ranked Wisconsin team, certainly not Northeastern's Huskies, and not even the biggest obstacle of all—the some 4,000 Badger fans and 130-piece band that had made the trip from Madison to Providence last week to see Wisconsin defend its national title. In a classically played final, North Dakota scored three third-period goals to beat the Badgers 5-2 and bring the college hockey title back to Grand Forks for the second time in three years and the fourth time in the school's history. Said tournament MVP Phil Sykes, the Sioux co-captain who had three goals in the championship game, "We were the one-two teams all year long. We knew to win we were going to have to beat Wisconsin. They wanted us and we wanted them."

North Dakota and Wisconsin, members of the six-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association, had already met six times this year. The Fighting Sioux, who finished with a 35-12-0 record, had won three of four games during the regular season, but in the WCHA playoffs three weeks ago in Grand Forks, the Badgers (35-11-1) triumphed 9-0 and 3-1 to win the league title. "We went for a tu-tu, it's as simple as that," said North Dakota Coach John (Gino) Gasparini last week.

"That 9-0 game was a blessing in disguise," said freshman James Patrick, the sensational 6'2", 190-pound Sioux defenseman who last year was drafted in the first round by the New York Rangers. "We said to ourselves, 'We'll see who gets the last laugh.' "

In last Thursday night's semis, North Dakota drew Northeastern, which was making its first appearance in the NCAAs. The 25-9-2 Huskies—heretofore known as the dogs of Huntington Avenue—were this year's Cinderella team. They had never won 20 games in a season and, after losing 12 of their final 13 games in 1980-81, had been picked to finish 15th in the 17-team Eastern College Athletic Conference.

Northeastern was no match for North Dakota's huge, disciplined defense in a game that can only be described as plodding. The Sioux scored the first six goals and then coasted to a 6-2 victory. Afterward, Gasparini thanked the Wisconsin fans, who had cheered wildly for Northeastern, for "churning us on." Was he surprised that the Badger boosters would support an Eastern team over one from the WCHA? "They saw the Huskies wore red, so they cheered," he cracked. "They don't know any better."

The next night Wisconsin advanced to the finals with a 5-0 win over New Hampshire (22-14-0). The game was closer than the score suggests; the big difference was Terry Kleisinger, the Badgers' sophomore goalie, who was outstanding, stopping 29 shots in getting the tournament's first shutout since 1972. Near the end of the game the Badger fans, a great sea of red at one end of the Providence Civic Center, rose and chanted, "We want Sioux! We want Sioux!" to the 100 or so green-clad North Dakota supporters sitting across the ice.

The North Dakota-Wisconsin rivalry is one of the most bitter in collegiate hockey. In 1977-78 a brawl erupted on the ice before a game, and when Johnson tried to break it up, he dislocated his little finger by catching it in a player's jersey. The injury required surgery after the season when Johnson, who loves golf only slightly less than he does hockey, discovered he couldn't grip a club properly. In that same fracas, A.G. Edwards, North Dakota's trainer, was punched in the nose and had to crawl off the ice. In February 1981 the teams got into another set-to before a game. "That time I said, 'The hell with it, let them brawl,' " says Johnson, mindful of his pinky.

The most recent fisticuffs occurred in January in Madison, when John Newberry, the Badgers' All-America center, squirted North Dakota Co-captain Cary Eades with water from a squeeze bottle as Eades skated past the Wisconsin bench. Eades went right in after Newberry, and the melee eventually spilled into the tunnels under the stands, where A.G. Edwards once again got involved. Six players were ejected, and the North Dakota trainer picked up the nickname All Goon Edwards.

"When I hired Gino, I told him I didn't want our team to be intimidated by anyone, at home or on the road," says North Dakota Athletic Director Carl Miller. Miller himself certainly isn't. The night before the tournament began, Miller, who is called "Little Elroy" by the Madison press because he wears a brush cut like that of Wisconsin Athletic Director Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch, could be seen dancing on a table at the Players Pub in Providence. Undaunted by the presence of dozens of Badger backers, he was snapping, "I don't cut my hair like anybody."

One scout describes North Dakota as "the pro team of college hockey" because of the way it plays defense. "We teach various systems of blocking, picking and controlling your man," says Gasparini. "Preventing forward progress, preventing give-and-goes." In the four years Gasparini has coached the Sioux, they have made the NCAA finals three times, always by stressing defense. "Anybody and everybody can play defense," he says. "The least talented player can identify with goals against. Physical hockey isn't a smash-'em-up thing, like everybody says about us. It's preventing forward progress."

How, then, does a team that stresses defense lose 9-0 on its own ice in the conference playoffs? "How did Team Canada, with its great defense, lose 8-1 last fall to the Russians?" asks Eades. "Everything Wisconsin did that night was golden."

Nearly everybody expected North Dakota to come out belting everyone in sight Saturday night, but instead the Sioux came out flying. "We had to take Wisconsin's band and fans away from them early," said Gasparini, "and the only way to do that was to come out with a rush." Glen White scored for North Dakota at 1:26 of the opening period, but 2½ minutes later the Badgers' Ron Vincent tied the score on a shot off the draw. It stayed that way until 1:09 of the second period, when North Dakota again silenced the Badger crowd with an early goal. It was almost identical to Vincent's score, as Sioux Center Gord Shervin won a face-off from Newberry, drawing the puck back to Sykes, who slapped a high shot past Kleisinger. At 5:30 Newberry made the score 2-2 to set up the dramatic third period.

"I told the guys between periods that the best defensive team would win," said Gasparini. And so it was. Wisconsin had two good opportunities early in the final period, but the Badgers were stopped by North Dakota Goalie Darren Jensen, who also was in the nets two years ago when the Sioux won the national championship. Jensen had played only two regular season games since mid-December, when he was in a car accident and had to be cut from his totaled vehicle by a Jaws of Life. "My head wasn't clear for a month," he says. He was reinstated in goal following the 9-0 drubbing by Wisconsin.

North Dakota's game-winner came at 6:27 of the third period when Sykes picked up a rebound and backhanded it into the open net. Eades, his roommate, would get the fourth goal before Sykes completed his hat trick at the 15-minute mark to close the scoring. Neither had slept well the night before. Eades had taken a 10-minute jog at 1 a.m. and then, a hot bath to try to relax. When he still couldn't sleep, he took a hot shower. Finally, he went down to Edwards' room, where they talked until six, allowing Sykes a few hours of peace. Sykes, a senior, led the tournament in scoring, as he had as a sophomore, with four goals and three assists in two games.

But the real hero was Gasparini's defense, which held the Badgers, who had averaged 5.5 goals a game during the regular season, to 25 shots on goal, many from poor angles. In addition, North Dakota took only four penalties and stymied the vaunted Wisconsin power play on each occasion. The Badgers drew just five penalties. It was simply a wonderfully disciplined game. As the seconds ticked down and the outcome became clear, the Badger faithful, surely the best thing ever to happen to college hockey, had to amuse themselves by cheering, "We're more fun! We're more fun!"

But there was no doubt in their minds or anyone else's who was No. 1.

PHOTOTONY TRIOLOAfter a fitful night that included a wee-hours jog, Eades (22) gave Wisconsin fits.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)