Brooks to Dahl to Motzko
St. Cloud's Journey is History in the Making
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
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Certainly, Pittsburgh-bound St. Cloud made its share of history this season, as the Huskies advanced to their first-ever NCAA Frozen Four. And while the “making” of that history has undoubtedly relied on the collective efforts of Hobey finalist Drew LeBlanc, Nick Jensen, Ryan Faragher, and the like, the true beginning of this journey started, in fact, decades ago – years before any of those players were born.
In 1986, Hall of Fame coach Herb Brooks, just six years removed from coaching the U.S. Olympic Men’s team to its famed “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviets and gold medal, made his return to the collegiate ranks – pledging to realize a mission outlined by the legendary John Mariucci to expand the game of college hockey.
Brooks had, of course, coached the University of Minnesota for seven seasons prior to coaching Team USA, and he parlayed his tremendous success at the Olympics into first a brief head coaching stint in Switzerland and then a four-year position as head coach of the New York Rangers. In the years since Brooks left college hockey – where he had won three national titles with the Gophers – North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Michigan State had evolved as the powerhouse programs, while Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth continued to dominate the headlines in the so-called “state of hockey.”
“Herbie had a vision,” said Craig Dahl, a friend of Brooks and eventual assistant-turned-head coach of the Huskies, “that there should be more than just two schools in Minnesota with a Division I program when Michigan had five or six. He felt there was enough talent in the state of Minnesota with the great high school programs that they have there that we certainly could have another team or two to pick up Division I.”
Back in ’86, Dahl had just finished a six-year stint as head coach at the Division III level, first at Bethel College (St. Paul, Minn.) for five years, then at University of Wisconsin-River Falls for a year.
Then came a new opportunity – at St. Cloud.
“I housesat Herbie’s house for two years right after the Olympics while he was coaching in Switzerland and New York,” revealed Dahl of the origins of his robust friendship with Brooks. The two young coaches visited St. Cloud, then a Division III program, and helped lay out their vision for moving the Huskies to Division I.
“We went up there and visited with them a little bit, and we actually turned the job down the first time,” recalled Dahl of the duo’s initial visit with the St. Cloud higher-ups. “About a week and a half later, Herbie called me back and went back up there, met with some more people and got things done.
“Herbie – he really took me under his wing and really mentored me. He told me, ‘Make the schedule next year for Division I. Get the buses. And monitor their academics.’”
In Brooks’ one year as head coach at St. Cloud – during which he also spent hours lobbying the state’s legislature for what would ultimately be the current home of the Huskies, the National Hockey and Event Center – the Huskies finished 25-10-1.
It was their best record, at that time, in over 50 years.
“Instant credibility,” former St. Cloud athletic director Morris Kurtz told Sports Illustrated in 2003 of Brooks’ impact. “Statewide and nationwide. That's what he meant for our fledgling Division I hockey program. It's very important to remember that Herb was doing it as a favor to [Mariucci], who was dying of cancer at the time.
"He was the consummate family man. He turned down a job with the Winnipeg Jets for who knows how much money at the same time he was negotiating with us. All because he wanted to spend some time with his family and because he wanted to help develop another Division I program in the state."
In its final year in Division III – with a move to Division I now on the horizon – St. Cloud finished third in the national tournament, led by – ironically – senior captain Mike Brodzinski, father of current freshman standout Jonny, the nation’s leader in scoring among rookies. That pedigree notwithstanding, perhaps the success of the 1986-87 Huskies isn’t particularly surprising in retrospect. That season after all, was the one when the stars aligned in St. Cloud so that the coaching staff included Brooks, Dahl, and one Bob Motzko, who served as a student-assistant.
A year later, St. Cloud made the move formally to Division I, Brooks left to resume his NHL career, and Dahl became the head coach – a position he held for 18 years before retiring in 2005 with two years left on his contract and leaving the position to Motzko.
Motzko, of course, will stand behind the bench this week as the Huskies’ head coach at the Frozen Four.
“It’s funny,” said Dahl this week. “The first year, we played Division I, and we won 11 games. The next year, we made the NCAA tournament as an Independent. I never thought about those things. I just thought about what we need to do today, this week, to get better, so we could get our guys’ eyes open to see what it’s like to play at this level.”
Under Dahl, St. Cloud won the WCHA tournament in 2001 – a year in which the Huskies won a program-record 31 games but had the misfortune of playing – and ultimately losing – an NCAA tournament game against lower-seeded Michigan at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor. To this day, Dahl says that one of his least-fond memories as head coach was that game, in which one of his star players, Duvie Westcott – who went on to play in the NHL – broke his arm.
Of course, the good memories outweighed the bad – by a long shot, especially when it came to his relationship with the late Brooks.
“We stayed in contact for the next 22 years until he passed away,” said Dahl. “A great experience. Great opportunity to have a mentor like that and such a good friend.”
Meanwhile, on the ice, Dahl was tasked with the responsibility of competing for recruits in Minnesota against the likes of the Gophers and the Bulldogs. From that point on, Dahl says, the culture of the program was born – out of necessity.
“Work ethic – absolute work ethic,” said Dahl of the defining quality of St. Cloud players, past and present. “Competing. Not just playing the game. It’s easy to play, but it’s hard to compete. You have to be focused, not only when you're on the ice but also when you’re sitting on the bench. That was something he stressed that we continued to stress and that Bob [Motzko] continues to stress.”
Eventually, the program developed legitimacy, especially with the arrival of players like Matt Cullen and Mark Parrish – “that helped elevate our recruiting from that point on,” Dahl says – both of whom ultimately enjoyed NHL careers of their own.
“If you want to run a good program, you have to not only concentrate on practice,” said Dahl of his philosophy. “You’ve got to concentrate on recruiting. You’ve got to do your homework because you have to recruit the right type of kids for the type of program you want.
“We really stressed academics. I made them go to class, and if I found out they were missing class, I sat them out for a game. I wanted them to have something beyond just hockey because very few were going to go on to play in the National Hockey League. But all of them have to go get a job. When they’re young, they don’t really think about that.”
This week in Pittsburgh, the job at hand for the modern day St. Cloud Huskies is, quite simply, a national semifinal showdown with the No. 1 team in the country, Quinnipiac. These Huskies are led by Motzko, who has led his alma mater to four NCAA tournament appearances in his eight years as head coach since taking over for Dahl, who will be in attendance this week at the Consol Energy Center.
Needless to say, one of the program’s founding fathers – Brooks – cannot be there. Brooks was killed in a car accident in 2003, prior to the release of the movie – Miracle – that chronicled his most famous triumph. The film ends with a tribute to the late coach: “He never saw it. He lived it.”
The same, of course, is true for St. Cloud and its trip to the Frozen Four. But thanks to his vision almost three decades ago – carried on by Dahl, and now Motzko – the Huskies now look to continue their long and arduous history in the making.
“There’s going to be a lot of familiar faces at the game,” said Dahl prior to leaving for Pittsburgh. “I’m looking forward to seeing us compete on that stage. I don’t think they’re going to be nervous.
“It should be a whale of a weekend.”