Bob Motzko seemed surprised that no one had made the connection. Last week, the St. Cloud State coach noted that these Huskies were not the first to make it to the final four in an NCAA hockey tournament. They had done so in Division III in 1987, finishing third in the nation to end the season in which Herb Brooks coached them.
Motzko began his coaching career as an assistant to Brooks that season. He is now in his eighth season as head coach and led St. Cloud State to its first Division I Frozen Four with emphatic victories over Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) in the Midwest Regional. Thursday, the Huskies play Quinnipiac in the national semifinal at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Wednesday, they kicked off the experience with a press conference; last week, Motzko reminisced about that 1986-87 season.
Brooks took the job to help the Huskies make the transition to Division I, furthering the vision of legendary Gophers coach John Mariucci, whose mission was to expand Division I college opportunities for Minnesota-born players. The Huskies went 25-10-1 that season, and Brooks also aided them by lobbying for state funds to build the National Hockey Center. In the Division III tournament, they lost 5-2 to Oswego State in the semifinals and defeated Bemidji State 6-4 in the third-place game.
"I'll never forget when we played the semifinal game,'' said Motzko, who played for the Huskies for two seasons before joining Brooks's staff. "I was standing right next to Herb in the press box, and he was madder than a hornet. He turned to me and said, 'I've never lost a semifinal game before in my life.' He was so mad. I'm just a young guy, and I'm thinking, 'He won three titles (at the U), he won the gold medal (at the 1980 Olympics). He isn't used to that.'
"That was just as meaningful to those guys in 1987 as it is to these guys, though this one probably means more to the whole community. One of the players from that team told me, 'You can finish what we started.' I do know Herb would be very proud of this.''
That player, by the way, was Mike Brodzinski, who has additional reason to root. His son Jonny, a freshman, leads the Huskies with 22 goals. Mike Brodzinski was the leading scorer in D-III in 1985-86 and 1986-87, and with 76 goals and 70 assists, he is the leading career scorer for St. Cloud State in its pre-Division I era. "He's really pumped,'' Jonny said last week. "He's got all his tickets. He's ready to go.''
More from Motzko on the current edition of the Huskies:
--He predicted big things early on for this group. "From day one, I said, 'There's something here,''' he said. "They have a great compete level, and they're a lot of fun to be around. I didn't know how good we were going to be; I knew we had (Drew) LeBlanc, (Ben) Hanowski and (Nick) Jensen back, and we had faith in our goalie (Ryan Faragher). But we needed some young kids to step into key roles, and they did.''
--On the importance of LeBlanc, a Hobey Baker Award finalist, to the team's success: "People say he doesn't have a lot of goals (LeBlanc has 13 this season). He has a pile of goals. They're all on other players' sticks. He makes players around him better, and that's his greatest gift as a hockey player. So many of our guys have tap-in goals they would never have had (without his setups). He puts the puck right on their tape.
"Those freshmen who have been his linemates (Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila), one has 22 goals, and one has 15. People say, 'Oh, geez, what tremendous freshman years they're having. They're good players.' Drew LeBlanc is why.''
Wednesday in Pittsburgh, at the team's pre-tournament news conference, LeBlanc spoke about how it felt to be there. The Huskies took a charter flight from St. Cloud and have a full slate of activities on tap in Pittsburgh, including fan gatherings, a pep rally with their band, mascot and cheerleaders, and a "red-carpet arrival'' ceremony before Thursday's semifinal.
"Just driving up and seeing that big Frozen Four sign on the window with our name up there, it's like, 'Oh, this really happened,''' LeBlanc said. "It's been a whirlwind of practice and interviews and this and that. We haven't had a chance to sit down and enjoy the moment yet. We can't wait to get to (game time).''