Two inches, maybe.
That was the difference between a puck going into the net for a championship-deciding overtime goal or it harmlessly “tinking’’ off the post and denying a coach what would have been his only NCAA championship.
On Saturday afternoon, Doug Woog, the former Gophers men’s hockey coach, died at 75 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease and other ailments. Woog had a storied career as a player and coach at South St. Paul High School, was an All-America player for the Gophers and coached Minnesota to 12 NCAA tournaments, including six Frozen Four berths, in his 14 years in Dinkytown.
Woog’s era of Gophers hockey will be known for its high-powered offense, banner after WCHA banner hanging from the rafters of jam-packed Mariucci Arena, both the old barn and the new one; and one fateful Saturday night between the clear boards of the St. Paul Civic Center.
On April 1, 1989, I was a sports reporter for the Minnesota Daily, serving as the sidebar writer for our coverage of the NCAA championship game between the Gophers and Harvard. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover some big events – the 1987 World Series and the 1995 Rose Bowl being at the top – but the memories of Woog and his Gophers trying to end a 10-year NCAA title drought haven’t left. There was that much drama that evening.
The Gophers, who a night earlier dispatched Maine 7-4 in the semifinals to reach their first NCAA final in Woog’s fourth year as coach, entered the title game with a 34-10-3 mark. With standouts such as Dave Snuggerud, Tom Chorske and Peter Hankinson at forward, Todd Richards and Lance Pitlick on the blue line, and Robb Stauber, the 1988 Hobey Baker Award winner in goal, the Gophers were the hometown favorites, and most of the 15,861 in attendance were expecting a coronation.
Harvard, which entered the game 30-3, had different ideas and showed its resiliency throughout the night. The Crimson led 2-1 in the second period and went up 3-2 at 12:53 of the third when Ted Donato – the current Crimson coach whose son, Ryan, plays for the Wild – scored. Hankinson answered with a power-play goal with 3:26 to go in the third, and the game headed to overtime.
That’s where the “tink’’ comes in.
Early in overtime, the Gophers’ Ken Gernander entered the Crimson zone and backhanded a pass to Randy Skarda, who drove deep and took a shot on Harvard freshman goalie Chuckie Hughes. The puck got past Hughes but struck the post, made that high-pitched sound and bounced right back. Gernander had a whack at the rebound, but it went wide.
Less than four minutes later, Harvard would win the game when Ed Krayer’s slow backhand shot slipped under Stauber’s pads for a 4-3 Crimson win that stunned the home crowd.
A few postgame scenes stick with me: Gophers players in tears over the loss; Hughes declaring that he knew Skarda’s OT shot wasn’t going in and that Harvard’s Beanpot victory earlier in the year was bigger than the NCAA title win; and Woog dealing with the pain of the lost opportunity.
“This one hurts right in the gut,’’ the coach said. “I don’t remember the pain of the other losses. It goes away. This pain is still here, so yeah, it feels like the worst.’’
One wonders what would have happened if that puck traveled two more inches to the left and Woog gets his national title. That would have been a crowning achievement for sure, but his record is one that most coaches would envy – those six Frozen Fours, 12 NCAA berths and an average of nearly 28 wins per season.
“Boy, his legacy is going to be as deep as any person in the history of this school – the love he had for this school and this program and this state,’’ Bob Motzko, the Gophers’ current coach, said.