A pause in puck playoff frenzy

John Gilbert

Ron "Buzzy" Busniuk .

Back about 1965, I had just pulled out of the University of Minnesota to accept a sportswriting job at the Duluth News Tribune. It was a fascinating time, because UMD had just made the move to begin shifting to Division 1 in hockey and the WCHA as a conference.

Ralph Romano was coach, athletic director, ticket manager and sports information director at UMD, and he did an amazing job of manipulating all of those tasks at once. My wife, Joan, and I found an apartment that could house us and our young son, and we were very close to Romano and his operation. So when he invited us to accompany him on a recruiting rip to his hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, it was high adventure.

We drove up the North Shore, got a hotel room and met Romano at the arena to watch a junior hockey game where a young prospect named Ron Busniuk was the top attraction. A stocky counterman with quick moves and a hard-nosed willingness to mix it up in the corners, Busniuk — universally called “Buzzy” in the region — caught our attention right away. Our toddler son chanted “Go, Buzzy, Go…” every time he touched the puck.

Romano was successful in recruiting Busniuk, who came to UMD and, never forgot our closeness. We had him over to our apartment for dinner, and Joan remembers him with a tiny souvenir hockey stick, playing floor hockey with our son on the living room floor. With freshmen being ineligible to play, Busniuk stepped in and led the team in goals and points as a sophomore and a junior. When he was a senior, Romano shifted him back to defense, where he not only led the Bulldogs in goals and points but also earned All-WCHA and All-America honors.

After leaving UMD, Busniuk signed with the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL, and after two seasons, he signed with the Minnesota Fighting Saints, where he was a highly valued asset as a puck-moving defenseman. He later played with several more pro teams before retiring back hoe to Thunder Bay, where he coached the area team to two Allan Cup national senior men’s championships.

I had lost touch with Buzzy, after writing about him for most of a decade, and I never heard that he was ill. So it was a jolt to me when I read that Ron Busniuk had died at age 75 at a residence in Thunder Bay. They’ve already held the services up there, and while it may be traditional to wish Godspeed to a close friend who has died, our whole family prefers to send him off with one final “Go, Buzzy, Go!”

Final final faceoff

If there is some agreement that post-season college hockey playoffs are the most exciting and best hockey of the whole season, then we also must acknowledge that sometimes the results don’t match our hopes. That was the case this spring, as the St. Cloud State Huskies were the only one of the six state-based Division 1 teams to advance from their league playoffs to the next level of NCAA playoffs.

The UMD Bulldogs had both the highest of hopes and the longest of long-shots as they headed West to contend with a mountain snowstorm and get to Denver’s Magness Arena, where the powerful Denver Pioneers had no mercy and not a lot of patience in whipping the Bulldogs 4-0. It was a 1-0 battle through one ten Jack Devine scored twice for the Pioneers in the second period and Connor Caponi fired into an empty net in the final minute to secure the 4-0 count.

Game 2 was the opposite, closer than the final 5-2 score indicated, as Denver broke a scoreless tie with three goals in the second period. UMD captain Luke Loheit spun and scored from the slot to open the third and cut the deficit to 3-1, and after the Bulldogs pulled their goaltender, Kyle Bettens came through on a scramble in the slot to score and cut the margin to 3-2.

But with the goalie still on the bench, Denver got empty-net goals from Tristan Bro with 1:13 left and from Rieger Lorenz with 22 seconds left and the 3-2 game finished 5-2 for Denver.

With the four winners advancing to Saint Paul, league champ North Dakota will face Omaha at 4 pm Friday, followed by the second semifinal between St. Cloud State and Denver at 7:30. The championship will be Saturday at 7:30 pm. They will all want to get comfortable in the home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, because the NCAA Frozen Four will be held there April 11-13.

The St. Cloud State Huskies had to go to Sunday and win the third game of a best-of-three series to subdue Western Michigan and will leave NCHC rival Minnesota Duluth behind, along with Minnesota State Mankato, to serve as Minnesota host for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, which makes its final appearance at Saint Paul’s Xcel Energy Center this Friday and Saturday.

Bemidji State still is in good position to advance, having beaten Lake Superior State 4-1 on Saturday to gain the CCHA championship playoff game against Michigan Tech, which eliminated MSU Mankato 4-3. The Huskies trailed 3-2 in the third period when Logan Pietala scored to tie the Mavericks 3-3 with 4:33 remaining, and then Pietala scored again with 9 seconds left in regulation to lift the Huskies to their 4-3 triumph and the slot opposite Bemidji State in this weekend’s final. Minnesota had high hopes of repeating as Big Ten tournament champ, but first had to get past Michigan, its quarterfinal foe.

But the Wolverines, who had beaten the Gophers two weeks earlier in a wild 6-5 overtime battle, gained a 1-0 lead and stretched it to 2-0 in the second period, then held off the Golden Gophers 2-1 after Jimmy Sniggered scored to cut the deficit in the third.

In normal circumstances, that defeat would have ended Minnesota’s season, but the Gophers rank higher in the PairWise and in the national rankings than they did in the Big Ten standings. So while Michigan advances to face league champion Michigan State this weekend, with the tournament winner getting an automatic invitation to the NCAA party, the Gophers are virtually certain to be awarded an NCAA at-large bid and sneak in the back door.

Undoubtedly, though, the Gophers will get sent on the road to a regional out East, which might be considerably tougher to win. Much as all of us in Minnesota would love to see another playoff match with Minnesota against anybody, you have to consider the big picture and know that if you’ve ever been anywhere between East Lansing and Ann Arbor, Mich., then you have some idea how any sports competition between Michigan and Michigan State becomes the biggest rivalry in the country.

With Michigan State as big a surprise conference champion as Michigan was finishing fourth, the single game elimination between the Spartans and Wolverines will be well worth watch on the Big Ten Network, when they collide at a sold-out Munn Arena in East Lansing on Saturday night.

When the shooting finally stops in each conference championship, the survivors will be scattered among four regionals around the country, each playing semifinals and finals to determine one Frozen Four team for the NCAA semifinals and finals, back in Saint Paul at the Xcel Energy Center.