The Best Ever?
Coaches Tab 86-87 Sioux
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the best team of them all?
When it comes to the history of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, two men with more than 60 combined years in the league rate the 1986-87 UND Fighting Sioux — the famed Hrkac Circus — as the best team they've seen.
It's a team that set an NCAA record for wins (40), outscored WCHA opponents by nearly three goals a game (5.71 to 2.69) and finished with a flourish, winning 24 of its last 26 games.
It"s a team that was led by an NCAA record 116 points by Hrkac — a mark that still stands — and by school-record 52 goals from Bob Joyce, a recent inductee into UND's Athletic Hall of Fame.
"In my years as a coach in the league," said Jeff Sauer, who coached at both Colorado College and Wisconsin, "I would rate the 1986-87 North Dakota team with Tony Hrkac, Bob Joyce and Belfour as the best. Great combination of talent, coaching and experience, tough to coach and play against and great fun to watch."
And how. It's a team that might have been good enough to go undefeated for the year, losing to the likes of U.S. International, twice to sixth-place Colorado College and even once to seventh-place WCHA finisher Michigan Tech.
That team met all the standards for greatness — dominating in the league, winner of the league post-season playoffs and meeting the ultimate standard, that of being a national champion.
It was Gino Gasparini's most successful team at UND, surpassing in final record his NCAA championship teams of 1980 and 1982.
Gasparini, like Sauer, rates the 1986-87 Sioux as the best team he's seen in the WCHA, based on performance and dominance.
But he doesn't call it his most talented team. Gasparini ranks his 1981-82 team — which finished with a 35-12 won-lost record and demolished Clarkson, Northeastern and Wisconsin in winning the NCAA title in Providence, R.I., as his most talented team.
It was a team that sent 11 players on to the National Hockey League in Jim Archibald, Dan Brennan, Jon Casey, Dave Donnelly, Craig Ludwig, Troy Murray, James Patrick, Gord Sherven, Phil Sykes, Dave Tippett and Rick Zombo.with Ludwig, Patrick and Murray combining to play in more than 3,000 NHL games.
But it was the Hrkac Circus of 1986-87 that took the country by storm, establishing themselves as one of the great teams of all time, not only in the WCHA, but in all of college hockey.
Long after that team had disappeared from the college scene, fans around the country I ran into during my 36 years at the Herald always asked about the "Hrkac Circus."
When ranking all-time great teams in the WCHA, one would be remiss to not mention the 1960-61 Denver Pioneers coached by the legendary Murray Armstrong.
That's a team that finished 30-1-1 overall, posted a 17-1 record in the seven-team WCHA and outscored league opponents 127-21, a remarkable 7.1 goals per game to 1.7 for the opponents for the great goals-per game differential for a champion in league history.
That was a team that unbelievably had five players — Marty Howe, Bill Masterton, George Kirkwood, Grant Munro and Jerry Walker — named to the NCAA All-America first team.
But that remarkable season also came at a time when there were far fewer colleges playing Division I hockey than there are today and when the recruiting rules were lax. "There weren't any," is how Gaspairni puts it.
Nationally, the 1969-70 Cornell Big Red won the NCAA title that year and never lost a single game, certainly establishing the greatness of that team.
But in the WCHA, no lesser figures than Gasparini and Sauer rank the 1986-87 Sioux as the best they've seen.
After that, they differ slightly.
Gasparini ranks the Sioux of 1981-82 and the Wisconsin Badgers of that same year as 2-3 in his ranking. Those teams played seven times that year, finished 1-2 in the WCHA respectively with 19-7-0 and 18-7-1 records and split six prior meetings during the season until the Sioux prevailed 5-2 in the NCAA title game behind Phil Sykes' third hat trick of the season against Wisconsin.
"I bet between those two teams, we put 25 to 30 players in the NHL," Gasparini said.
Sauer ranks the 1977-78 Wisconsin team No. 2 among the best WCHA teams he's seen with the 1982-83 Badgers and Sioux ranked in a tie for third.
That 1982-83 team was Sauer's first as head coach at Wisconsin and a team that eliminated UND with a 6-5 triple overtime victory in the WCHA playoffs in Grand Forks. It's a game I'll remember as one of the greatest I've seen for sheer drama and great talent on the two teams. The winning goal came shorthanded by the Badgers, the only shorthanded goal the Sioux allowed all year.
"It sure has been fun to be involved," Sauer said. "For me, it has been the people over the years that have made it work. I span a lot of players, teams and coaches — I coached against eight different coaches at Minnesota, for example, in my 32 years as a head coach.
"It sure is fun to look back."