Patrick Reusse: St. Cloud State poised to leave WCHA a champ

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2013 - 1:33 PM

St. Cloud State faced rough ice in its history but is positioned to exit the WCHA as a champion.

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Charlie Basch, left, and current St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko got together at rinkside while looking over improvements on campus. A splashy entrance and atrium are nearly complete.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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ST. CLOUD — Charlie Basch was hired as a football assistant at St. Cloud State for the fall of 1968. The administration also threw in the tasks of coaching hockey and using his biology degree to teach classes.

Basch had a similar workload at Concordia College in Moorhead. He had reason to suspect the strength of the Cobbers' hockey commitment, when the boards for the outdoor rink were torn down at midseason to provide more parking for a winter music concert.

Hockey wasn't a priority at St. Cloud, either. The Huskies played on an outdoor rink that was flooded and maintained by Charlie and his players. The ability to play a full home schedule was determined by when it got cold in central Minnesota and how long it stayed that way.

We must have had an early glimpse of global warming in the early '60s, since the Huskies played a total of 22 games in the three winters from 1962 through 1965.

"When I got here, we were in the International Collegiate Hockey Association with four schools that were serious about hockey: Bemidji State, Superior in Wisconsin, Lakehead in Thunder Bay [Ontario] and Lake Superior State,'' Basch said. "One season and I said, 'This is ridiculous; we're going to be an independent.' "

The big moment for St. Cloud hockey came in 1972, when the first indoor ice sheet opened at the Municipal Athletic Complex. This was the culmination of an effort led by Bill Frantti, a former Huskies player and a coach at St. Cloud Tech.

"I was coaching Tech and asked for a meeting with the guys around town in 1956-57,'' Frantti said. "Everyone committed to help push for an indoor rink. It only took 15 years.''

Early in the '60s, Frantti was involved in shutting down varsity hockey at Tech. "We concentrated on a youth program, and trying to get an indoor rink,'' Frantti said.

I was a sportswriter at the St. Cloud Times from the spring of 1966 to the fall of 1968. Basketball was riding high in the area then, with outstanding teams for Red Severson at St. Cloud State and Jim Smith at St. John's, and a powerhouse at St. Cloud Tech.

The sports crowd did its drinking at the American Legion club on the west bank of the Mississippi River. When Frantti came through the door, someone was sure to shout, "How's that hockey going, Bill?'' and then laughter would follow.

Frantti might as well have been trying to sell insurance as hockey at that time in St. Cloud. Yet the sport ran in the blood of this Finn from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and he would not be deterred.

"I went to every City Council meeting,'' Frantti said. "Ed Henry was the mayor and he finally said to the council, 'I see Frantti more than I see you people. Let's do something so I don't have to listen to him anymore.' "

The city decided to sell Rox Park, the old Northern League ballpark that sat on acres that were valuable for commercial development. They used that as seed money to start the Municipal Athletic Complex in what was then countryside. The plan for the MAC included a new ballpark ... and an indoor ice sheet.

"1972 ... we finally had one glorious sheet of indoor ice,'' Frantti said. "We now have six, counting Sartell. I remember the battle, and see what's being done right now with the Huskies' arena, and I can get a little emotional.''

The NHEC -- the National Hockey and Events Center -- opened in 1989 with state funding. That was St. Cloud State's third and last season as a Division I independent. The Huskies were admitted to the WCHA for the 1990-91 season.

Herb Brooks gave the final push to Division I hockey when he coached St. Cloud in 1986-87, its final winter in Division III. Yet, if you build a statue to St. Cloud hockey pioneers, it would be Bill Frantti, with Charlie Basch standing next to him.

Basch coached the Huskies from 1968 through 1984, taking them from whipping boys of the old ICHA to competitive members of the new Northern Collegiate Hockey Association in 1980. That league is now dissolving after 33 years.

Charlie was at the Huskies' arena last week to take a look at the remodeling that is ongoing. "Our outdoor rink was about 100 yards up the hill from here,'' he said. "Look at this ... it's from a brochure they put out to help promote our hockey team.''

It was a drawing of the blade of a stick, a puck and pair of skates. "Figure skates,'' said Charlie, laughing.

There's no laughter concerning St. Cloud State hockey today. They have spent a quarter-century in an NHEC with no amenities, but that's changing. A spectacular entrance and atrium is nearly complete -- as is a suite level. There will new locker rooms and a club room.

The Huskies need all of this to compete where they are headed: to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, with North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota Duluth, Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio).

"The WCHA has been a great league, but this one ... you're never going to have an easy weekend,'' Huskies coach Bob Motzko said.

The Huskies have a chance to exit the WCHA after 23 seasons in the highest of style: winning a first-ever McNaughton Cup as the regular-season champion. They carry a two-point lead in the jammed first division of the WCHA with two weekends to play.

Frantti was in Florida on a vacation for a few weeks, but he'll be back for this weekend's home series with Michigan Tech.

"I remember going to Houghton [Tech] as an 'adviser' when Jim Baxter was a player-coach in '54, '55,'' Frantti said. "We lost twice, of course, and the total goals were 33-0. Now we're hoping we can sweep Tech and maybe win the WCHA.

"How great would that be?''

Great -- although not quite to the standard of 41 years ago, when St. Cloud opened that first glorious sheet of indoor ice at the MAC.

Patrick Reusse can be heard from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. • preusse@startribune.com

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