‘I’d rather go to Superior’

John Gilbert

Coach Herb Brooks with his 1979 NCAA Champion Gophers. University of Minnesota photo.

   It was early in the third period inside the sparkling new Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, and arch-rivals Minnesota and North Dakota were battling ferociously in the NCAA hockey tournament championship game.

Neal Broten, a Gopher freshman from Roseau, carried the puck into the Fighting Sioux zone. The Gophers were leading 3-2, and Broten slipped the puck through a North Dakota defenseman and lunged after it as it slid toward the North Dakota goal. Goaltender Bob Iwabuchi came out of his net, boldly, to clear, while Broten was ever so slightly tripped by the defenseman he had just beaten.

Broten let himself fly, and as he was coming in for a landing, he reached out with one hand on his stick and speared the puck, which popped up in the air and cleared the broad-sliding Iwabuchi, landing just beyond him an instant before sliding into the goal.

The goal, at 2:48 of the third, made it 4-2 and allowed Gopher goalie Steve Janaszak to hang on, despite a goal at 9:56 of the third by Marc Chorney, bringing Minnesota a 4-3 victory for the third NCAA title for coach Herb Brooks in the last six of his seven years at the helm. Brooks, of course, went on and brought a dozen Gophers with him and won everlasting glory with the 1980 U.S. Olympic team in its gold medal quest.

One of the fantastic things about having saved dozens – hundreds – of notebooks from the early days of my sportswriting career is that when you go back 40 or 50 years ago and reread them, it’s as though you are thrust back in time with the chance to relive them – the perfect elixir for the current pandemic shutdown of all sports.

The two notebooks that were required to contain everything that happened in Minnesota high school, college and pro hockey during that 1978-79 season is an example.

That was 41 years ago, folks, and it caught my attention because I have always claimed that the Minnesota title team in 1970 was, in my opinion, the greatest team in college hockey history. And for sure, I said to former UMD coach Mike Sertich, 1978-79 was the best year ever for college hockey, especially in the WCHA.

Sertie, who was an assistant to his one-time mentor Gus Hendrickson at UMD in those years, said I might be right, but UMD had played the Gophers to a standoff throughout that season, just as North Dakota did. In fact, with all the talk about great UMD teams in its history, everybody overlooks the 1978-79 team, which, starting with Mark Pavelich, John Harrington and Curt Giles, was outstanding.

In the final regular-season series that year, Minnesota beat North Dakota 5-2 in Williams Arena in the next to last game to move within one point of first place, in position to snatch the WCHA championship from the Fighting Sioux.

Check off the honor roll of scorers in that game: Minnesota led 2-0 on amazingly quick goals by Billy Baker are 0:38 and Rob McClanahan at 0:59 — 2-0 in the first minute! David Christian countered for North Dakota at 3:54, and Mark Taylor tied it at 12:48. Tim Harrer restored the lead 3-2 two minutes later. No goals in the second period, but Phil Verchota and Steve Christoff scored third-period goals and Minnesota won 5-2.

But North Dakota came back in the final game of the regular season when Bill Himmelright and Phil Sykes broke a scoreless game with goals at 1:02 and 3:14 of the second, and Christian scored at 8:56 for a 3-0 lead for the Sioux, as a huge crowd of 7,996 jammed Williams Arena, after 7,989 were swinging from the rafters the night before.

Down 3-0, big Don Micheletti scored in the last minute of the second period, then Billy Baker scored with 6:53 to play with a missile from the left point. and the Gophers pressed for the equalizer, down just 3-2. But when coach Herb Brooks pulled Janaszak in the final minute, David Christian broke free and rushed the empty net – stopping at the crease before blasting a snapshot in at 19:21. The 4-2 victory gave North Dakota the title at 22-10, with Minnesota three points back at 20-11-1.

Coach Herb Brooks. University of Minnesota photo.

Overlooked in the flurry was that UMD and Wisconsin tied for third with 40 points, one behind Minnesota. UMD was 18-10-4, Wisconsin 19-11-2 in the 10-team WCHA.

Back at the start of the season, at the Duluth Arena before it was called the DECC, the Gophers and Bulldogs had a fantastic series. Bill Oleksuk gave UMD a 1-0 lead late in the first period, and Eric Strobel tied it 1-1 for the Gophers early in the second.

Phil Verchota and Don Micheletti scored 33 seconds apart late in the middle period for a 3-1 lead, but Brad Palmer opened the third with a UMD goal.

Verchota scored his second of the game at 7:01 of the third, and Glenn Kulyk scored his first of two in a row 13 seconds later, and the game headed for overtime 4-4.

Steve Christoff opened overtime by rushing across the blue line and rifling a 35-footer past Bill Perkl to give the Gophers a 5-4 victory.

“Keith [Hendrickson] made a great rush, and they come right back down and score with their only shot,” said UMD coach Gus Hendrickson.

In the second game, Gus turned loose his two Olympic prospects – Mark Pavelich scoring at 2:04 and John Harrington at 7:09 for a 2-0 UMD lead.

It opened up in the second, with Neal Broten scoring twice, his second coming at 15:07 to ignite a goal splurge. Kulyk scored at 15:25 of the second, Steve Ulseth tied it 3-3 for Minnesota at 17:19, and Pavelich put UMD up 4-3 at 19:51. Four goals in a little more than four minutes.

Strobel tied it for Minnesota at 4-4 in the third, but Oleksuk drilled a shot into the upper right corner at 11:32, and the Bulldogs prevailed 5-4 for a split of the two identical scoring games.

It wasn’t until the final game of a total-goals series that the Gophers got away. Goals by future Olympic teammates Christoff and Pavelich made it 1-1 until Harrer, ever the sniper, scored at 9:55 and Minnesota won 2-1 despite Perkl’s 45 saves, as 7,676 fans watched.

Game 2 saw Bart Larson and Steve Ulseth stake Minnesota to a 2-0 lead. UMD’s Curt Giles followed up his shot for a goal-mouth feed to Oleksuk to cut it to 2-1, but Broten deflected in a shot for a 3-1 first period.

Gus Hendrickson switched to a 2-man forecheck in the second period, and Harrington and Oleksuk scored to gain a 3-3 tie. Harrer, however, put Minnesota back up at 4-3.

Nobody could contain the explosive offenses, but Christoff put the Gophers up 5-4 at 9:04 when Giles hooked him up and rode the check all the way to the end boards before Christoff kept his focus and snapped a shot that glanced in off Perkl’s skate.

A minute later, Micheletti converted a rebound and the Gophers escaped with a 6-3 victory, advancing them toward the NCAA tournament.

It also gave the acidic Brooks a chance to zing Duluth, which he seemed to enjoy doing to me, especially after we became close friends. After the game, Brooks said: “We beat a good hockey team, and we had to have a helluvan effort. But I still don’t want to go there – I’d rather go to Superior!”

A look at the scoring race in WCHA games only showed UMD’s Pavelich third, Harrington seventh, Dan Lempe, Giles, Oleksuk and Kulyk all among the top 50 in the 10-team league.

Minnesota had Broten, Christoff, Micheletti, Baker, Strobel, Harrer, McClanahan, and Verchota on that list. North Dakota had Kevin Maxwell, Taylor, Doug Smail, Rick Zaparniuk, Cary Eades, Bill Himmelright and David Christian.

Wisconsin had Mark Johnson, Lee Grauer, Theran Welsh, Scott Lecy, Bob Suter and Rod Romanchuk.

Most of the Gophers went on to Team USA; most of the Fighting Sioux went directly to the NHL. And the league scoring champion? Dave Delich, Colorado College, with 25-45—70, while Mark Johnson was second at 25-41—69, and Pavelich third at 23-40—63, followed by Broten and Christoff.

College hockey is played defensively tighter these days, but those who recall the snipers from 1978-79 will never forget them.