Catching Up With ... Tom Kurvers
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
You're from Minneapolis, you play hockey, you expect to play for the Gophers.
That's just the way it is for most kids. And that's the way it was for Tom Kurvers. His family held Gophers season tickets, after all.
To top it off, Kurvers was being recruited in 1980, in the aftermath of the Miracle on Ice. An Olympic team full of Gophers, led by Minnesota's legendary coach, Herb Brooks, were American heroes.
None of it worked out like planned. On the other hand, it couldn't have worked out any better, either.
"I didn't have a choice as much as some guys. I had one offer from Wisconsin, which was a half-scholarship, and one full offer from Minnesota-Duluth, which made it an easy decision for me," Kurvers says. "Like most kids from the Twin Cities, I was pretty disappointed when the hometown team didn't recruit me as hard as some other players, but that's the way it is.
"I knew who everyone was and I was aware of all that. But, at the same time, I recognized before my senior year of high school I wanted to play in the league if not for that team."
So Kurvers signed on with Duluth, and the rest, as they say, is history.
All Kurvers did was improve each year, along with a steadily improving team. Sprinkle in the mentorship of then-new head coach Mike Sertich, and by the time Kurvers and his classmates were seniors, Duluth reached the national title game and Kurvers had himself college hockey's most prestigious prize — the Hobey Baker Award.
Today, after an 11-year NHL career that included a Stanley Cup championship in 1986, Kurvers is working as a pro scout for the Phoenix Coyotes, under Bobby Smith, a teammate in Montreal early in Kurvers' NHL career.
"[Smith] gave me an opportunity to get involved," Kurvers says. "Travel is a little challenging, and my family is young, so you try to balance that the best you can. But I'm learning a lot on this side of the game, and I have ambitions to do more in the future."
Ambitions that began to blossom in Duluth.
"It was a great thing for my family," he says in retrospect about leaving the Twin Cities for the small northern Minnesota city of Duluth. "I was the second of five children, and everyone came up for a lot of our games. I think, in four years, my father missed 10 weekends. We talk about it now at family gatherings. It was a nice way for our family to become closer."
Kurvers was an offensive defenseman and power-play quarterback. He helped the Bulldogs right away, putting up 24 assists and 30 points his freshman year. He impressed scouts enough to be selected in the seventh round of the 1981 NHL Draft by Montreal. But the NHL was a long way off.
The next season, Kurvers broke out with 11 goals and 42 points. But the team was still mired near the bottom of the WCHA standings. That's when the change was made to Sertich, and the Bulldogs went 14-12 in 1982-83, with Kurvers reaching 44 points.
"I give [Sertich] a lot of credit. He is the person responsible for the program turning around," Kurvers says of the coach who resigned from UMD just last year.
"It's a great award and a great honor, it's a nice thing to be a part of, but it might be more of a burden than an honor for the player that wins it and then plays in the championship game the next day."
Tom Kurvers on winning the Hobey Baker Award
"Our program made great strides our junior year. [Sertich] changed the direction of the program and we had success. You talk about buying into a program at every level, and we did. He just made us work harder and become a more committed team.
"We had enough talent that was underused to that point, and we began to get more out of our players. And we tasted some success when we were juniors. And we gained some notoriety when our goalie, Bob Mason, went on to play for the '84 Olympic Team. He was the MVP of the league. So we had some success in our program that hadn't been there much before. It was a good year, and the next year we built on that."
Indeed they did. But that, too, was still a long way off when the 1983-84 season began.
It started with Kurvers trying out for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team, a tryout that ended in bitter disappointment when he was cut.
"For me, it worked out for the best," Kurvers says. "You get cut a lot as a pro hockey player — if you can call a trade a cut. They had a lot of pressure on them in '84. For me, it was the best thing that could've happened. But it was a big disappointment to be left out of the mix.
"But I was part of the process, and I may not have developed enough to play pro hockey if I was the sixth defenseman on the Olympic team."
Any idea of what lied ahead could not have been predicted when the season began.
"We played the Olympic team in an exhibition game and lost 12-0, so we had no clue at that point," Kurvers says.
When the season began, Duluth was playing decently enough, but nothing spectacular. The team still didn't believe in itself.
One night, during a home game, athletics director Ralph Romano was sitting in the first row of seats behind the team's bench when he suffered a heart attack. That incident turned out to be fatal, and it opened the team's eyes.
"For some reason, we seemed to rally around that sad incident," Kurvers says. "He developed the program in Duluth and was a very, very good man. For some reason, after the Christmas break, our team found the glue that you need to become winners, and went on a roll in the second half of the year."
From adversity came inspiration, and by the time the season ended, the 1983-84 Bulldogs were champions of the WCHA, winning the regular-season title and the postseason championship over North Dakota.
Within a few weeks, those teams would meet again, this time in the national semifinal on March 22 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
"I remember our goaltender played awfully well," Kurvers says. "I remember we beat North Dakota two weeks prior in the WCHA playoff final, and blew them out the first game in one of those two-game total goal series. So they had a chip on their shoulder to get back at us, and it was a great game."
Much unlike the series that won the WCHA tournament, this was a nail-biter, won 2-1 in overtime when Bob Lasko set up future Hobey Baker winner Bill Watson for the winning goal.
Being in the national championship final, and having it happen in Lake Placid, which had become a mecca for American hockey, was a moment not lost on Kurvers.
"It was a chance to go to where it all happened in '80. And it was pretty fresh in everyone's minds in '84," Kurvers says. "So it was exciting to be up there and be around it. And later in my career, I got to know [1980 Olympians] Mike Ramsey and Jack O'Callahan pretty well, and hearing their stories of how they celebrated the gold medal, and now I know where they were. It was the first experience for most of our guys on an Olympic-size sheet."
But, as if there wasn't enough swirling around that senior season already, Kurvers was faced with Friday's traditional Hobey Baker Award ceremony between the semifinals and final. With 18 goals and 76 points on the season, Kurvers was a favorite.
"[Winning the Hobey] wasn't even in the realm of thinking at the start of the year," Kurvers says. "Norm Maciver, my roommate, started mentioning it in January. Then my name was thrown in there, and our team was winning. He kept saying, 'You're gonna win that thing.' Finally, after he said it a few times, it kinda hit me. I thought, 'Maybe that's a possibility.' "
It turned into a certainty, as Kurvers took home the award, as well as instant recognition. But there was still a game to pay attention to, a game that would become a classic.
In a game that went to a fourth overtime — overtimes were played in 10-minute intervals then — Bowling Green defeated the Bulldogs, 5-4, despite 55 saves from freshman UMD goalie Rick Kosti. But beyond the excitement of that game, Kurvers, other than the disappointment of the loss, remembers some strange details above all.
"I don't remember the goals as well as I remember being along the boards with one of the Bowling Green players, puck at our feet and hoping the whistle would blow so we could get a breather," he says.
"We went to four [defensemen] halfway through [regulation] and they played four all night. The benches shortened early. You played a lot of hockey, you played 100 minutes of hockey, and every other shift. So we were pretty tired ...
"And I remember the PA announcer requesting that some of the fans that were on charter aircraft to leave the game after two overtimes so they could make the plane to get back to wherever they were coming from."
Perhaps the most lasting memory, Kurvers said, is how intertwined the players in that game are, no matter which team you were on. When you see someone, either an ex-teammate or former Bowling Green player, the game becomes an instant topic of conversation.
"It's almost mandatory when you get toghther with one of the guys," Kurvers says. "In fact, I saw Dave Ellett, who played for Bowling Green that year, recently, and it's almost mandatory to discuss the game again because it was such a memorable game.
"The comforting thing is, Dave Ellett, and I'm sure the rest of their team, they don't hold it over our heads. They consider it, like all hockey players when you're done playing, it's like you all played on the same team. We know we played in a pretty big-time game."
If there is one thing Kurvers wishes was different, however — besides the result — is how the Hobey Baker Award ceremony is handled. He says the pressure of that moment might be too much coming one day before the final.
"It was a little bit overwheleming," Kurvers says. "I was 21 years old, and all of a sudden you're tagged as the best player in college hockey. It's a great award and a great honor, it's a nice thing to be a part of, but it might be more of a burden than an honor for the player that wins it and then plays in the championship game the next day."
Kurvers may have a point, when you consider that five other Hobey winners have lost the following night's championship game — Neal Broten (Minnesota, 1981), Mark Fusco (Harvard, 1983), Scott Fusco (Harvard, 1986), Jason Krog (New Hampshire, 1999), and Mike Mottau (Boston College, 2000).
"I don't know if they'd all share that feeling, but it seems like it puts a little extra burden on the player," Kurvers says. "And maybe the player is supposed to step up to that. But I'd like to see it happen in any other format then to do it right before the game."
(Three players have won the Hobey and the championship — Tony Hrkac (North Dakota, 1987), Lane McDonald (Harvard, 1989) and Paul Kariya (Maine, 1993).)
Looking back, just getting to that title game, after all Kurvers and the team had been through, was satisfaction enough. Especially because of what that team was able to give back to the local community of that small city in northern Minnesota.
"People from outside of Duluth — which is most of the rest of the world — don't realize, Duluth's economy is tied to the steel industry, to Pittsburgh to Youngstown," Kurvers says. "Duluth had the third highest unemployment rate in the country at the time.
"Our success became a rallying point, not just for the school, but for a city of 100,000 people in Duluth. And it brought some excitement and hope for people who were going through tough economic times."
Of course, as eventful as Kurvers' college career was, he still had 11 years and 659 games of NHL life ahead of him. And in just his second year, he had 30 points on a Canadiens team that won the Stanley Cup.
But, despite a relatively long and successful NHL career, Kurvers never tasted that kind of team success again. The next year, he was off to Buffalo, then to an up-and-coming New Jersey Devils team that made the playoffs for the first time in 1988 and rode the magic all the way to the semifinals.
The following year, Kurvers had a career-high 16 goals and 66 points, then it was off to Toronto and another 15 goals. He followed up with stints with Vancouver, the New York Islanders, and Anaheim, and even a season with Seibu of the Japanese league, before retiring in 1996.
"It was a lot more than I expected on the way in, and not nearly enough on the way out," Kurvers says.
"You get in, and it's very difficult to be a great player at the pro level. The [Hobey] award I won got me the recognition and opportunity to play in the NHL. I broke in with a good team in a good environment. I look around at my teammates that first year, and there's an awful lot of coaches and general managers. So I know I was around solid people, and I got my career off on the right foot.
"I did enough right to keep getting chances."
Now, Kurvers is evaluating talent. He likes what he sees in the college game today, but he says, with all the competition, scouts these days will go after talent anywhere they can get it. That's, perhaps, different than 20 years ago when it was more difficult for college players to get noticed.
"I'm not sure there was a lack of respect for the college player," Kurvers says. "I think everyone was just set in their ways 25 years ago. There wasn't a thought to go see a college player. But I can tell you from in-house experience, if we can find a player in college, Europe, any level of the minor leagues that can help our team, we're going to seek him out. There is no bias for or against any player from anywhere in the world.
"The college kids are in the second best league in the world. They play to big-time crowds, there's many big-time college atmospheres. For many players it's a better developmental place. You have world-class training equipment, every school, they all have it now. They practice more. The effort is incredible for those kids to practice and get the schooling done. The commitment is there.
"For the best players, junior hockey is going to groom them for the NHL — when they're can't miss. For any player below 'can't miss,' college is a great way to go."
As it was for Tom Kurvers.