DULUTH — On April 9, 2011, in his 11th season at Minnesota Duluth, Scott Sandelin and his Bulldogs captured the program’s first NCAA men’s hockey championship, defeating Michigan 3-2 in overtime in a thrilling Frozen Four final at Xcel Energy Center.
“I remember telling my wife, ‘We’re going to enjoy this one because it might not ever happen again,’ “ Sandelin said.
History shows that Sandelin might have been selling himself and his program short when he made that declaration to his wife Wendy, but nobody can knock him for fully celebrating a title. Since then, the Bulldogs have captured two more NCAA championships (2018 and ’19) and nearly won another (a one-goal loss in the 2017 final).
On Friday night, that third NCAA banner will reach the rafters in AMSOIL Arena before the Bulldogs open the 2019-20 season against Massachusetts Lowell. It’s a coronation that Minnesota Duluth has a chance to three-repeat next fall. Only one team has won three consecutive NCAA men’s titles. That was Michigan from 1951 through ’53, and you’re likely in your 70s if you remember those. The Bulldogs, flush with 20 returnees from last season’s team, are embracing the challenge of history.
“There’s no complacency,” standout defenseman Scott Perunovich declared during the Duluth stop of Puck Drop’s Tour of Minnesota. “Everyone wants a third in a row.”
Sandelin won’t pump the brakes on that optimism, though he knows hockey is a sport in which oddities occur, especially in a single-elimination situation.
“The most surprising one was ’18,” he said of his three national championship teams. “We had such a young team. Last year, I felt we had a better team to make a run at it, with those guys gaining experience. That’s how it works sometimes. Talking with other coaches, it’s amazing how many say their best teams haven’t won it.”
He pointed to a recent conversation with Brendan Morrison, captain of the 1996-97 Michigan team that entered the Frozen Four with a 35-3-4 record and designs on a second consecutive national championship only to fall 3-2 to Boston University in the semifinals. North Dakota, with Sandelin as an assistant, won the title that year.
“North Dakota was a little bit like that in 2011, when Michigan knocked them off,” Sandelin said, pointing to the Wolverines’ 2-0 upset of UND, which outscored its two regional opponents 12-1 and took a 34-8-3 record into the Frozen Four.
Sandelin’s Bulldogs have been steeled by NCAA tournament play over the past three years, going 11-1 in that span with an 8-1 mark in one-goal games. They’re comfortable when the games are tight.
“I don’t know if it’s so much a philosophy. It’s getting guys to buy into stuff,” he said. “First and foremost, we always want to be a hardworking, competitive team. We’re more of that blue-collar mentality. You need to mix in that along with guys who can make differences in games. There were years where we couldn’t get those kids. Lately, the doors are opened a little bit more.”
One Bulldog that’s helping to open those doors wasn’t originally the difference-making type. Senior goalie Hunter Shepard was lightly recruited out of Grand Rapids High School, spent two years with Bismarck of the NAHL and landed in Duluth. After backing up Hunter Miska on the 2017 NCAA runner-up team, Shepard seized the starting job and ran with it. Over the past two years, he’s allowed seven goals total in eight NCAA wins.
“To have a guy who’s had the career he’s had here coming back, it’s a great place to start,” Sandelin said.
And if the Bulldogs have their way, the finish will have that familiar championship feel.