When presented with the assignment of writing about the 40th anniversary celebration of the Gophers’ 1979 NCAA hockey championship team, my first thought was, ‘How am I going to get everything into that 25-inch space they’ve left me?’
The answer: I couldn’t. So, to go along with my story about that team, which will be honored Saturday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci during the Gophers game against Wisconsin, here are some anecdotes and items that couldn’t make the newspaper because of space constraints:
The bold prediction
A big theme with the 1979 team is coach Herb Brooks and how he pushed the right buttons to get everything out of his players. Before the season, Brooks predicted that the Gophers would win the national championship. Though not everyone on the team remembered his forecast, those who did recall it saw the impact.
“It really was a big deal,’’ said goalie Steve Janaszak, who was a senior that season and went on to be Brooks’ backup on the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic team. “It was kind of insane, because he basically said we were going to win it all before the season started. We tried to figure that out for a long time.’’
Steve Ulseth, a sophomore forward that season, concurred.
“Going into the season, when your coach predicts to the media that you’re going to win the national title, there’s a little bit of pressure,’’ Ulseth said. “Throughout the year when you have a bad weekend or a little slump, the pressure is only enhanced by that.
“… It certainly was pressurizing, but it also proved he believed in us,’’ he added. “He thought he had the horses, which he ultimately proved to have. It was unique in sport, for sure. Joe Namath predicted they’d win the Super Bowl, but that was one game. This was a whole season.’’
Defenseman Bill Baker, the senior captain of the team, doesn’t remember Brooks’ prediction 40 years later, but he didn’t think it changed things much. “I thought we had that pressure on us all the time,’’ Baker said. “That’s why I went to the U.’’
Missing a teammate
Along with Brooks, who died in a car accident in 2003, the 1979 Gophers team is without another member. Rugged defenseman Mike Greeder died at 48 after suffering a heart attack in 2005. On a Minnesota squad that featured eight members of the 1980 Olympic team, Greeder was one of the unsung heroes.
“There were a lot of guys who were role players. One of those guys was Mike Greeder,’’ Ulseth said. “He was a stay-at-home, tough-guy defenseman, great teammate. Guys like that you kind of forget about them, but I don’t want to forget about him.’’
Added forward Eric Strobel, “Everybody had their roles and played their roles. Guys like Mike Greeder, he was unbelievable as a team player. … I don’t think there were any cliques on that team.’’
Rivals clash again and again
The Gophers were very familiar with their opponent in the NCAA championship game. Including a season-opening exhibition, Minnesota played the Fighting Sioux seven times and won five of those meetings, capped by a 4-2 win in the NCAA final.
North Dakota got the upper hand three weeks before the NCAA Final Four, beating the Gophers 4-2 in the regular-season finale to split a series and win the WCHA regular-season title.
“We had such a rivalry with them to begin with, and then to play them that many times in the year,’’ Baker said. “… We knew them pretty well. There weren’t any secrets.’’
Though winning the national title was a team effort, the Gophers did have individual standouts in the Final Four. Freshman center Neal Broten scored the game-winning goal with a spectacular from-his-belly chip over North Dakota goalie Bob Iwabuchi early in the third period. After the game, the former Roseau High School star let his emotions flow in a TV interview.
“It’s about time. I’ve been to the high school tournament three times and I haven’t won it yet. This is the first time, national tournament. Am I happy!’’ Broten said, flashing a big smile and the No. 1 sign with his index finger.
Ulseth remembers the goal well.
“I was next up, front row [on the bench],’’ he said. “It was absolutely spectacular. It’s something remarkable that he did all the time. When you were on the ice and wearing the same color jersey that he was, you were a better player because he made you a better player. An 18-year-old, 140-pound freshman, too.’’
Janaszak made 25 saves in the final and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. His teammates saw a goalie who improved down the stretch, when the Gophers went 10-1 in their final 11 games.
“We all peaked at the right time,’’ forward Eric Strobel said, “and Janny was unbelievable in that North Dakota game.’’
Baker remembers how he and senior alternate captain Phil Verchota would try to keep Janaszak grounded with humor.
“Especially the three of us being seniors, we’d joke around. Before every game, we had our little ritual and give him a hard time,’’ Baker said. “I’d say to him, ‘Stand up. If we put a board in there, it’d stop 75 percent of ’em. Just stand up.’ We’d go around and around.
“… He was a little bit up-and-down, and he’d be the first to admit it, but towards the end, he really started to play well. And in the NCAA tournament, he played phenomenally. He won it for us. Against North Dakota, he made some tremendous saves on the stretch.’’
Another standout was freshman defenseman Mike Ramsey, who started the season on the Gophers junior varsity team but became a cog down the stretch. He received additional playing time in the NCAA tournament because Baker was hobbled by a leg injury that happened when he was hit by future Olympic teammates John Harrington and Mark Pavelich in the WCHA playoffs against Minnesota Duluth.
“I give Rammer a hard time: ‘You can thank me for all that ice time,’ ’’ Baker said. “Rammer played phenomenal.’’
Ulseth said he didn’t believe Ramsey came off the ice in the third period.
“We were just hanging on,’’ Ramsey said. “Janny was playing well, and we did kind of a rope-a-dope.’’
Along with Janaszak and Ramsey, others to make the all-tournament team were Strobel (three goals in a 4-3 semifinal win over New Hampshire), forward Steve Christoff (goal, assist in final) and North Dakota forward Mark Taylor and defenseman Howard Walker.
The movie “Miracle’’ features a famous scene in which Brooks made his U.S. Olympic team skate countless “Herbies’’ after a lackluster tie in Norway during exhibition play leading to the Lake Placid Games.
That was nothing new, according to Baker.
“Everybody always asks me, ‘That scene [from ‘Miracle’], where he skated you like that, was that really true?’ He did that like twice with the Olympic team. He would do that almost weekly at Minnesota,’’ Baker said. “We hated practices there. Phil and I would always joke that we’d get out of shape on the weekends playing games, because we wouldn’t be in shape for practices.’’
Baker could see Brooks’ anger ramping up during that game.
“We hadn’t played well against that Norwegian club. I knew Herb’s mannerisms. When he was mad, you could tell. He was mad,’’ Baker said. “We ended up tying them. He goes, ‘Nobody leave the ice.’ As soon as he said that, I said to somebody, ‘Wait ’til these guys from out East get a load of this.’ I knew what was coming, and he kept us out there and skated us. He was getting madder and madder by the minute.
“The Norwegian people thought that he was putting on a skating exhibition after the game, and they started clapping. He came unglued even more.’’
As was the case with the 1980 Olympic team, Brooks was not buddies with his players on the 1979 Gophers team. His presence could be intimidating, but the results spoke for themselves.
“Herb was a great coach, an unbelievable coach, but he was not an easy man to play for,’’ Ramsey said. “I was 17 when I got to the U, and I was definitely afraid of him.’’
Added Ulseth, “We had a coach that made you feel bulletproof. He was as hard on you as he was on anyone. He pushed where he needed to push.’’
Baker, who played for Brooks for four years with the Gophers and one with Team USA, credits the coach for his career.
“We didn’t have a personal relationship with Herb, but I owe him so much,’’ he said. “I just wish he would’ve let us sit down with him one night and tell him that. He never let his guard down. … But like I said, I owe him the world. He takes you from a pretty raw high school kid, gives you a chance to win a couple NCAA titles, you get a good education, you get a gold medal, become an All-American. What more do you want?’’
A look from the present
Gophers coach Bob Motzko remembers following the 1979 Gophers team while growing up in Austin, Minn.
“I was a senior in high school, and they weren’t on TV. You’re playing your own games, but you follow it the best you could,’’ he said. “It’s more after, when those players from ’79 go to 1980, you sure know who they are. Then Herb gets the [Olympic] job in ’80, and that probably helped. … That was their third title of the decade. I just know there were some darn good hockey players on that team.’’
Broten, in particular, was a player with whom Motzko identified.
“It’s kind of weird when a guy your own age – he was a year older than me – is someone you follow,’’ he said. “He was a legend, and he was only 19 years old. He was already becoming a legend in our state. You remember him in the state tournament in ’77 and ’78. When you were growing up, everybody knew that name.’’
Motzko has tried to instill the history of that ’79 team with his current Gophers squad, which includes senior Jack Ramsey, son of Mike Ramsey. Jack Ramsey learned a lot about the team from Big Ten Network documentary.
“We’d watch that, and it’s pretty cool and nostalgic,’’ Jack Ramsey said. “I know some of his buddies from that ’80 [Olympic] team. Great guys. It’ll be pretty cool seeing them come back this week.’’