Cory Laylin had an excellent Gophers hockey career, scoring 58 goals in four seasons from the fall of 1988 to the spring of 1992. Those goals were overshadowed four years later, of course, when Laylin scored the sudden-death winner that gave the Twin Cities the Central Division champions of Roller Hockey International.
What was the name of that team again?
“The Arctic Blast,” Laylin said. “I played for two years for them and for a couple of other teams. Roller hockey … that was dangerous. You could get hurt.”
Roller hockey was a summer job for Laylin. His winter job generally was playing pro hockey in Europe — two seasons in Austria, four in Italy, one in Switzerland and four in Germany (plus portions of two others).
Laylin’s last turn as a player in Europe was in 2008. He returned home and landed at Hamline as an assistant to Scott Bell, a former Gophers teammate. Laylin did that for a couple of winters, ran his hockey school in Maple Grove, and then went back to Italy to coach Caldaro for the 2011-12 season.
“Lou Vairo lined me up with the job, and it was a great experience, but my wife Stacy and I have three boys and we wanted to get back home,” Laylin said. “When I told the boys I took a job coaching in South Dakota, they said, ‘Do they speak English there?’ ”
Laylin coached the Brookings Blizzard, a junior team in the North American Hockey League, for two seasons.
“Nice rink, good people, and it’s also a basketball town,” Laylin said. “Our home is in St. Michael, and we wanted to raise the boys in a hockey culture.”
Bell had turned around a downtrodden Hamline program and then left in 2011. Scott Steffen stayed one winter, Doc Delcastillo two and the Pipers were again hapless: 1-15 in the MIAC and 2-22-1 overall last season.
“I got the job in late April and it was obvious we had to make a lot of changes,” Laylin said. “I cut a lot of returning players and went to work bringing in players who fit our profile. We go after the ‘bubble’ players, the guys between low Division I and Division III … the gritty kids, the kids hungry to play.”
There are many of those in the 24-team NAHL, a junior league a step down from the USHL. Laylin and his staff brought in 15 new players. There are eight freshmen in the lineup and a dozen NAHL alums on the 26-player roster.
Gritty. You have to be that to play hockey for Hamline, which plays home games at Oscar Johnson Arena. The Pipers have a construction trailer for a locker room and a porta-potty in case of an emergency.
Laylin laughed at that and said: “That’s us, and we embrace it. We like the idea that other teams used to more comfortable surroundings have to come to our arena to play us.”
Hamline wound up finishing fifth, a point ahead of St. John’s and Gustavus in a bunched middle of the MIAC. That put the Pipers in a 4-5 game at Augsburg. They were down 3-1 early in the third, then got three goals from the Mahtomedi tandem of Charlie Adams and Brandon Zurn for a 4-3 victory.
Next for Hamline was a semifinal game at St. Thomas. The Tommies were the MIAC regular-season champions. What a surprise. Aren’t the Tommies the MIAC champions in everything?
“It seems that way,” said Jason Verdugo, Hamline’s athletic director. “St. Thomas has a national focus for success. We look at it from a conference standpoint. As an athletic program, we’re trying to improve every year, to get in that top four [of the MIAC].”
There was a sizable Hamline delegation at the St. Thomas Arena last Saturday. The Pipers fans erupted when Cody Mason broke a 3-3 tie with four minutes left. Zurn scored two minutes later, and an empty-netter meant this:
Hamline 6, St. Thomas 3.
The Pipers travel to Winona on Saturday to play St. Mary’s, another upstart, for the playoff title and the MIAC’s automatic berth in the Division III tournament.
It’s never a bad thing to beat the Tommies, any sport, any time, is it, director Verdugo?
“It is not,” he said. “They set the standard in most every sport.”