The season began 500 miles to the northwest of Minneapolis, finished triumphantly 700 miles to the southeast and planted the seeds of what grew into the biggest upset in American sports history.
Members of Minnesota’s 1979 national championship team will gather on Saturday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci, as the Gophers men’s hockey team takes on Wisconsin, for a celebration of the 40th anniversary of their feat, which was secured with a tense, thrilling 4-3 victory over rival North Dakota on March 24, 1979, at the Olympia in Detroit. The reunion will honor the Gophers’ third NCAA championship in a six-year span in the 1970s and hearken back to the program’s glory days.
“You didn’t realize what a golden time for Gopher hockey that it was, because you’re right in the middle of it,’’ said Steve Ulseth, a sophomore forward at the time.
The mastermind of the Gophers’ hockey pinnacle, of course, was Herb Brooks, the innovative taskmaster of a coach who restored the program to a national power and a year later led the U.S. Olympic hockey team — with eight 1979 Gophers and 13 Minnesotans on its roster — to its colossal, 4-3 upset of the mighty Soviet Union on its way to the gold medal in the Lake Placid Olympic Games. Brooks died in car accident at age 66 on Aug. 11, 2003.
As he did with the Miracle on Ice team, Brooks knew the right motivational buttons to push for his ’79 Gophers team, too. In this case, the coach predicted before the season that his team would win the national championship.
“When he predicted that, I pretty much thought, ‘Wow, here we go. We have to produce,’ ’’ said Eric Strobel, a junior forward on the team and 1980 Olympian. “That was a big challenge.’’
That was especially true for senior goalie Steve Janaszak, a returning starter from the 1977-78 team that did not make the six-team NCAA tournament. Did Janaszak feel pressure from his coach’s bold words? “Just a touch,’’ he said.
The Gophers began their march to a 32-11-1 record and national title by facing the foe they would see seven times that season — North Dakota. Minnesota opened with a 6-5 victory over the Fighting Sioux in an exhibition game on Oct. 20 in Minot, N.D., then topped UND 5-3 the next night in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Eveleth, Minn. With Brooks implementing a European style of play that he would use with the Olympic team, the Gophers bolted to a 17-4 record by early January.
“It probably was one of the first times I’ve seen him be a little more creative,’’ said forward Phil Verchota, a senior alternate captain and 1980 Olympian. “… He had players who could control the puck better. We had the skill set to be able to do that.’’
That skill included a trio of forwards who topped 70 points for the season — junior center Steve Christoff, junior winger Don Micheletti and freshman center Neal Broten — plus defenseman Bill Baker, the senior captain who had 54 points.
“It was a different team. We won it in ’76 when I was a freshman, and that was a hard hat/lunch pail kind of team,’’ Baker said. “This was a little higher skilled. It was just a superfun year.’’
The season was not without its hiccups, though. From Jan. 12 through Feb. 17, the Gophers endured a 4-7-1 stretch in which they were swept in series at Denver and Notre Dame. “We hit bottom there,’’ Janaszak said. Added Baker, “Herb gave us a pretty good tongue-lashing.’’
From then on, however, the Gophers won 10 of their final 11 games. The only loss was 4-2 to North Dakota in the regular-season finale at Williams Arena, a defeat that gave the Fighting Sioux the WCHA championship over the Gophers.
Minnesota rebounded to win the WCHA playoffs, with sweeps of Michigan Tech and Minnesota Duluth. That got the Gophers into the five-team NCAA field, in which they were host to Bowling Green in a quarterfinal, while North Dakota had a spot in the Final Four as the West’s top seed.
The Gophers beat Bowling Green 6-3, then faced New Hampshire in the semifinals on March 22 in Detroit. Before the game, Brooks took Strobel off Broten’s wing and put him at center on another line. Strobel wasn’t thrilled with the move, but he responded with a hat trick in the 4-3 win over the Wildcats. “Guess what?’’ Strobel said. “It all worked out.’’
Then came the championship game two days later, in which the Gophers faced North Dakota, a 4-2 semifinal winner over Dartmouth.
“I don’t know if it was destined, but after losing the last game of the season at Williams Arena for the WCHA title, it was poetic justice that we would find them again in the finals of the NCAAs,’’ Janaszak said.
Rivals clash again
In the seventh meeting between the Gophers and Sioux — “It wasn’t friendly hockey, I can tell you that,’’ said Mike Ramsey, a freshman defenseman and future Olympian — Minnesota bolted to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Christoff at 4:11 and John Meredith at 8:05. After North Dakota’s Bill Himmelright halved the lead at 17:10 with a power-play goal, Joe Baker scored for a 3-1 Gophers lead with 38 seconds left in the first.
North Dakota’s Kevin Maxwell trimmed the lead to 3-2 late in the second period, setting up a dramatic final 20 minutes that included an iconic goal in Gophers history.
Less than three minutes into the third period, Broten skated the puck into the UND zone, deked past one Sioux player, maneuvered around another, dived to ice and chipped the puck over goalie Bob Iwabuchi for a 4-2 lead and the game-winning goal.
“That goal was the beginning of so many good things that came off his stick in his career,’’ Verchota said of Broten, the former prep star from Roseau, Minn., who went on to play in the NHL from 1981-97.
“That is THE standout goal in my mind, forever and ever,’’ Janaszak added.
With more than 17 minutes left to play, there still was work to be done, and North Dakota cut the lead to 4-3 on Marc Chorney’s goal with 10:04 to play. But the Gophers survived the final 10 minutes — foreshadowing Team USA’s tense finish against the Soviets — to clinch the title.
“It was nice to beat them in the one that mattered the most,’’ Verchota said.
Nearly 40 years later, the team will gather again, and its impact isn’t lost on the Gophers current coach.
“The legacy of that group is probably deep into the hockey fiber of our culture in our state,’’ Bob Motzko said.
“It’s a pretty special group, and it’s going to mean a lot to the hockey community to have them back in the building.’’