Normally, Scott Perunovich would’ve received the news on a Friday afternoon, on a stage with an applauding crowd. It would’ve happened during the off day of NCAA Frozen Four weekend in Detroit, possibly with Perunovich and his Minnesota Duluth teammates preparing for a chance to win their third consecutive national championship.
Instead, during these far-from-normal times because of the coronavirus pandemic, the defenseman took in the news late Saturday night from his family’s home in Hibbing, Minn., during ESPN’s “SportsCenter” broadcast.
Perunovich was named the 2020 Hobey Baker Award winner as the best player in Division I men’s college hockey.
“It’s extremely special,” the Bulldogs junior said during a news conference on Zoom. “I have my family and my grandparents around me right now. To be able to share this with everyone means the world to me.”
Special is just what Perunovich has been for Minnesota Duluth over the past three years. A slick-skating, puck-moving defenseman who plays with edge despite his 5-10, 175-pound frame, Perunovich helped the Bulldogs win consecutive national championships in 2018 and ’19 and had them in the running for another before the season was scuttled on March 12. A second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, he signed with the NHL club and will forgo his senior season in the Twin Ports.
Perunovich, who had team-high 40 points on six goals and 34 assists, beat out North Dakota forward Jordan Kawaguchi and Maine goalie Jeremy Swayman for the Hobey. He became the sixth Minnesota Duluth player to win the award. He also is the 10th Minnesotan and first Hibbing native to be honored. Congratulations poured in from other Bulldogs in the Hobey club.
“They reach out and they care,” Perunovich said of the five past winners — Tom Kurvers (1984), Bill Watson (’85), Chris Marinucci (’94), Junior Lessard (2004) and Jack Connolly (’12). “Once you’ve been a Bulldog, you’re always a Bulldog.”
The road to Duluth
After four seasons at Hibbing High School, Perunovich joined Cedar Rapids of the USHL. It’s there where he said his game evolved. “In high school, I was about 50 times worse defensively,” he said. “I went to juniors and learned how to play the game of hockey the right way.”
Joining the Bulldogs in 2017-18, Perunovich was one of five freshmen on the blue line. He was paired with sophomore Nick Wolff, who would be his partner for the next three seasons.
“When he got to UMD, everybody found out what kind of player he was,” Wolff said. “… The first time you see on the ice and he’s skating around opponents, you can tell he’s a special player. The way he sees the ice is incredible.”
Perunovich amassed 11 goals and 25 assists that season, earning first-team All-America honors and the Tim Taylor Award as the nation’s top freshman while helping the Bulldogs win the NCAA title. He also played for the United States’ bronze medalists in the World Junior Championship.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko, then with St. Cloud State, led that U.S. team, and its roster already had Bulldogs freshmen defensemen Mikey Anderson and Dylan Samberg. Perunovich, who wasn’t in the summer evaluation camp, made an impression, and Motzko wanted him on the team.
“I remember telling [USA Hockey executive] Jim Johansson, ‘It’s kind of crazy if we’re going to take Anderson and Samberg and leave their best defenseman home,’ ” Motzko said.
During his sophomore season, Perunovich dealt with a back injury but still had 29 points as the Bulldogs repeated as national champs. “He was grinding through some days and some games,” Wolff said, “but his competitive level is unbelievable. … He’s still gonna be out there making ridiculous plays.”
Healthy in 2019-20, Perunovich was a force from the start, and Motzko saw that when his Gophers were swept in a series in October. “He was the best player we faced this year,” Motzko said. “He was dominant in that series. He always had the talent, but he was at an upper level as a leader this year.”
The standout season resulted in first-team All-America honors, the NCHC player of the year award and the Hobey. Missing, though, was a chance at the three-peat.
“Obviously, it’s not the end to the season we wanted, but there’s a much bigger picture with this whole COVID-19 crisis, so we’re just looking to get past this,” Perunovich said.
The Hobey will serve as nice consolation prize.
“I don’t even know if it’s set in,” Perunovich said Saturday. “Just to have that support behind me at UMD is amazing, and I’m so grateful for it.”