Hockey was recognized as a varsity sport for University of Minnesota men in the winter of 1920-21.

That makes it easy to state that what the Gophers will be celebrating at Saturday night's home game against Michigan will be the university's first championship in what's now 104 years of men's hockey.

Then again, a true championship is a team winning the best competition that it is eligible to win, so we cannot ignore the 1939-40 Gophers. They completed an 18-0 season with a 9-1 thumping of Brock Hall of New Haven, Conn. to win the national AAU title in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The Dairymen were a power in senior men's hockey, but no match for John Mariucci, Harold Paulsen and other standout Gophers.

The NCAA didn't start deciding a college champion until the 1947-48 season.

"Even with that, it still seems surprising that the Gophers had gone the first quarter-century without an NCAA title — that we were the first in '74," Bruce Carlson said this week, talking in the hockey cave in his Edina home.

He was one of 11 forwards skating in Boston as the '74 Gophers won that first NCAA title. The group in uniform numbered 19, with 11 having been recruited by Glen Sonmor.

The path for the Sonmor recruits was remarkable. In 1971, the freshmen were around for a surprise run to the NCAA title game and a 4-2 loss to Boston University.

The next season, the Gophers opened 1-7, and Sonmor then took a job starting up the WHA's Fighting Saints as general manager and coach.

Ken Yackel, a former hockey great and three-sport athlete for the Gophers, was named interim coach. The 1971-72 team finished 8-24 (.250), still the worst record in Gophers history.

Athletic director Paul Giel took the plunge and hired 35-year-old Herb Brooks. His first season was mediocre, which was an improvement.

The players all received a letter from Brooks before the 1973-74 season. Carlson has preserved that letter for 50 years.

It started with a quote from Danny Thompson, a Twins shortstop diagnosed with leukemia, on the shortness of a sports career (he died at 29 in 1976): "You have only so much time to do your thing."

Brooks pointed out he had offered the Gophers a similar message the previous season. Also from Herbie's letter:

"'I can' and 'I will' are phrases heard many times over. But the only phrase that holds any water is, 'We did it!'"

College hockey was a small world then: 10 schools in the WCHA, 16 schools in the ECAC, with a few stragglers. The official NCAA tournament was a final four with two teams from the WCHA and two from the ECAC.

First, there were two rounds of conference playoffs; two-game, total-goal series in the WCHA. The Gophers dispatched Michigan first, then things got salty.

Denver and its feisty coach Murray Armstrong came to the old Mariucci Arena. It was a 3-3 tie in the opener, and then an intense 2-1 win for the Gophers the next day.

"Many people, including Sonmor as a spectator, called it the biggest game in that arena's history," Carlson said.

The Harris brothers from Roseau, first Robby and then John in the third, scored the Gophers goals.

On to Boston — and first, a 5-4 overtime win over Boston University, playing four miles from its campus.

"We were ahead 4-1, BU stormed back to tie it, and then we were called for a penalty," Carlson said. "Herb sent out Mike Polich, and he picked off a pass, and put in a shorthanded goal with 13 seconds left.

"Unbelievable. That's as great a goal as the Gophers ever have had."

Two nights later, there was Michigan Tech, the WCHA champs, in the title game.

"[Goalie] Brad Shelstad was great, all season, that night, the MVP of the NCAA tournament," Carlson said.

Gophers 4, Michigan Tech 2.

Brooks' teams would win again in 1976 and 1979, and then he took a leave of absence from the Gophers — something to do with Lake Placid, N.Y, as I recall — and did not return.

Saturday, 13 of those original Gophers NCAA champs will take a bow after the first period. Some couldn't make it — Les Auge and Tom Dahlheim have passed away — but all to be remembered 50 years later.

They were Herbie's Boys, the first Gophers to be able to look at the coach and declare, "We did it!"

. . .

Herbie's Boys

Forwards: Bruce Carlson, Cal Cossalter, Tom Dahlheim, John Harris, Robby Harris, John Matschke, Warren Miller, Pat Phippen, Mike Polich, Buzz Schneider, John Sheridan.

Defenseman: Les Auge, Doug Falls, Joe Micheletti, Brad Morrow, John Perpich, Dick Spannbauer.

Goalies: Bill Moen, Brad Shelstad.

Not in final game but on the team: Tim Carlson, Eric Lockwood, Mike Phippen and Tom Vannelli.