Bulldogs from 1984-85 the best ever?

John Gilbert

From left, Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson, Matt Christensen and Tom Herzig.
From left, Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson, Matt Christensen and Tom Herzig.

It was in the fall of 2017, and we were gathered at AMSOIL Arena to watch a UMD game in the NCHC when I spotted an old friend near the press box. It was Tom Kurvers, a fellow I’ve known since he played defense for Bloomington Jefferson back in the 1970s, long before he had come to UMD to become the school’s first Hobey Baker Award winner in 1984.

I welcomed Kurvers back “home,” and said, “You’ll enjoy watching this UMD team, because they’re going to be really good, even though they have a sophomore and five freshmen on defense. They’re all good players, in fact one of them is the best defenseman since you.”

He laughed, and we enjoyed the game, reminiscing about the good old days, when Kurvers was a senior defenseman  team to win a WCHA championship.

The freshman I was comparing to Kurvers was Scott Perunovich, who, this year, became the sixth UMD player to win the Hobey Baker Award.

With all of us going stir-crazy with the Coronavirus pandemic eliminating all our sports all spring and, maybe, also summer. To fill their days, a lot of sports fans are into naming the all-time team here or there, and while some of them are interesting, others are ridiculous, but it got me to thinking, because before UMD won the first of its three NCAA championships under coach Scott Sandelin, I had always said that I’ve enjoyed watching every team UMD has put on the ice in Division 1, and even prior to that, dating back to the old Curling Club days.

And before UMD won the NCAA title three times and were headed for the fourth, I always had maintained that the best UMD hockey team in school history was the 1984-95 team, coming right on the heels of the 1983-84 team.

The 1983-84 team 29-12-2, the first team in school history to win the WCHA title, and went to the 1984 Frozen Four in Lake Placid, N.Y., where they beat North Dakota 2-1 in overtime, and then lost the most wrenching game in UMD history, a 5-4 setback in four overtimes.

The 1984-85 team had lost Tom Kurvers to graduation, but had gained a new young winger named Brett Hull. That team repeated as WCHA champions, went 36-9-3, and lost a wrenching 3-overtime NCAA semifinal game to RPI in the Detroit Olympia, after Bill Watson had been named Hobey Baker, for a 49-goal season, compared to “only” 35 goals the year before.

So now, as all the youngest generation of sports media gather in breathless enthusiasm to select all-time UMD teams, and the best UMD team of all time, we will make a humble presentation of our selection. After winning three NCAA titles this decade, the  best UMD hockey team in school history is…(drumroll, please)…the 1984-85 Bulldogs.

Most of the players on those two teams are the same, and most of the line combinations are the same, too. Rick Kosti was in goal for both teams and he was superb, despite losing that 4-OT classic to Bowling Green. Kosti was 27-9-2 as a freshman, when he made 55 saves in that game and was stung when a last-minute dump-in hit a seam in the Zamboni door and the ricochet went out in front for an easy goal before Kosti could scramble back to the goal from behind the cage.

The day before, Kurvers had been given the Hobey Baker Award. That team was loaded, on both offense and defense. Kurvers partnered with Norm Maciver on the top defensive duo.

Both went on to play for more than a decade in the National Hockey League, and Kurvers won a Stanley Cup at his first stop, Montreal. In 1983-84, Matt Christensen centered Bill Watson and Tom Herzig on the top line. Other prolific scorers up front included Bob Lakso, Brian Johnson, Skeeter Moore, Dave Cowan, Mark Odnokon, and there were worker-bees like Danny May, Jim Toninato and Sean Toomey, among others.

Besides Kurvers and Maciver on defense, UMD had Jimmy Johnson and Bill Grillo, and Jim Springier and Guy Gosselin — as solid a 6-man defense as you could find on the 1983-84 team.

Losing Kurvers hurt, but Maciver kept the wheels turning. Kosti, meanwhile, posted a 33-9-3 record in 1984-85. In evaluating the scoring from defense, consider that Kurvers had 192 points over four years, Maciver 191, and a fellow from the previous decade — Curt Giles — had 171. In goals, assists and points, it was Kurvers 43-149—192; Maciver 39-152—191; Giles 36-135—171; Keith Hendrickson 35-94—129; Dave Langevin 35-72—107. Not a bad top five.

The sixth highest-scoring defenseman? Scott Perunovich, at 20-85—105. Those are the only six defensemen in school history to wind up more than 100 points, and while points aren’t the best way to measure defensemen, it makes a nice break if you’re picking six defensemen on your all-time UMD team.

As long as we’re into scoring, we might carry on the concept to the forwards, where early departures to the pros make a dramatic impact on career scoring. If you want to torment your Bulldog-fan friends, ask them to name the top three career point scorers in UMD history.

They are Dan Lempe, who played 146 games, scoring 79-143—222; Derek Plante, who played 138 games, with 96-123—219, tied with Matt Christensen, who played 168 games, with 76-143—219. Watson, who played 108 games, scored 89-121—210 for the team career record of 1.94 points per game.

Incredible. Keith (Huffer) Christiansen, UMD’s first league scoring champ and an All-America, played only 102 games back in 1963-67, but he scored 75-121—196, for a per-game average of 1.92 points, second only to Watson. Brett Hull had 84-60—144, but his 84 goals came in only 90 games.  

We will get arguments about the best team. A case could be made for this year’s 2019-20 team as the best ever. I say it’s second best, and would be, even if allowed to go on and win its third straight NCAA title. But we must pause and go back to the mid-1980s.    

The game has changed considerably since UMD first went Division 1 and left the Curling Club. Observers will tell you there is more defense played nowadays, and certainly more attention to defense by entire teams.

But Brett Hull scored 32 goals as a freshman, and 52 in his second season. And the new generation of speedy, hustling, puck-handling forwards suiting up for UMD, have a quiet guy named Bill Watson as a volunteer assistant coach, and with his history of scoring — every game — his advice might be worth listening to.   · · ·