Has Minnesota hockey development faltered?

John Gilbert

Times have changed, we all know that. As a quiz, let’s answer a question: Has the caliber of Minnesota hockey players improved over the last 40 years?
Most people would answer, assuredly,  the depth and skill level has greatly improved.
Let’s go back 38 years to compare. I was driving a rental car from New York City to Lake Placid, N.Y., where I met co-workers Joe Soucheray and Jon Roe for a 3-pronged attempt to cover the 1980 Winter Olympic Games for the Minneapolis Tribune. We got along well, and we had a lot of laughs sharing a 2-bedroom apartment in a private home across the street from the hockey arena. 

Joe and Jon had their assignments, and mine was to cover Team USA’s hockey exploits. It was a fabulous three weeks, and if it had gone on for three months, I could have worked 18 hour days in every one of them.
You either recall the U.S. Miracle on Ice or you’ve heard about it, seen movies about it, or read that excellent book “Herb Brooks: The inside story of a hockey mastermind.” (That last one is subjective, because I wrote that hard-to-find classic career story of Brooks, which includes the Olympic drama.)

On the roster, Brooks alone had selected defensemen Billy Baker, Mike Ramsey, and David Christian, forwards Mark Pavelich, John Harrington, Buzz Schneider, Phil Verchota, Rob McClanahan, Steve Christoff, Eric Strobel, and Neal Broten, and goaltender Steve Janaszak. True, there were others, but those 13 were all from Minnesota. A 14th, Mark Johnson, was a Minnesota native transplanted to Madison, Wis. So let’s round it off at 14. If you wanted to add the iconic coach, Herb Brooks, then we can say that 15 Minnesotans brought home the Gold.

Flash forward now to 2018, where a fresh, new Team USA is about to take on the world in a considerably easier landscape. In 1980, NHL pros were ineligible, so the U.S. and Canada were all outright amateurs, playing against pro-caliber veterans from the Soviet Union, Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and elsewhere.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the U.S. roster, which includes Ryan Stoa, from Bloomington, and Will Borgen, from Moorhead. Those two, and that’s it. General Manager Jim Johannson, who tragically died in his sleep a month ago in Colorado Springs at age 53, had reportedly done all the scouting and selecting of Team USA’s talent. Coach Tony Granato, currently coaching at the University of Wisconsin, may have had a hand in some of the decisions. I have the utmost respect for Johannson, and I’ve known him, and his dad, Ken Johannson, from when Jimmy was a teenager.

However the selections were made, they reflect an interesting coincidence with USA Hockey. For years, I’ve had some disagreements with USA Hockey. The best of times were when Badger Bob Johnson ran that outfit, and we became close friends, and Edina’s Walter Bush also was a close friend of mine for 50 years. But I often found that the organization previously known as AHAUS -- the Amateur Hockey Association of the U.S. -- made a lot of self-fulling prophecies come true. If you were generous and acomodating to that organization, it had ways of repaying you, as a coach and/or player.

But scouring all of the American players participating in European professional hockey leagues could only come up with two Minnesotans. Really? The two late additions to Team USA are Ryan Stoa, a former Gopher who has been playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for the last four years after scoring a lot and reaching All-America status with the Gophers. Borgen is from Moorhead and is a junior defenseman at St. Cloud State.

Hopefully, both of them will have a great time in Korea and play well for Team USA. Oh, also in their past, Stoa played for the U.S. in the World Junior Tournament in 2007, and Borgen played for the 2016 U.S. Junior team, which won bronze. If you were a cynic, you might wonder if the USA Hockey background of those two players figured in their Olympic opportunity.

Team USA opened the preliminary round of Olympic tournament play against Slovenia. Sounded like a pushover. But John Harrington, former UMD star who also starred on the 1980 U.S. Gold Medal team, spent some time playing and coaching in Europe, and had the opportunity to coach the Slovenia National team. They lost 2-1 to Germany in a game that decided which would advance to the 2010 Olympic Games.

I mentioned to John that UMD hockey fans, whose only connections to Team USA are Borgen and Stoa - both from Bulldog rivals - might be tempted to cheer for Canada against the U.S. because Canada’s team includes Mason Raymond, a Canadian from British Columbia and one of the friendliest players to ever play at UMD. Will UMD fans pull for the ex-Bulldog, or the ex-Gopher?

“I know what you mean,” Harrington said. “I looked over the roster for Slovenia the other day, and I coached 15 of those players when I was over there.”
Korea Team for Nobel?

One of the neatest stories out of the first week of the Winter Olympics is the development of the Korean women’s hockey team. The team, coached by former UMD defenseman Sarah Murray, was coming along nicely, as she brought the team to the U.S. to play exhibition games against all the WCHA women’s teams. Then, suddenly, North Korea worked out an arrangement to send a group of athletes across the border. Sarah Murray had to accept a group of North Korean players and fit them into her South Korean team - which became, simply, Korea.

Along with the North Korean players came a large group of red-clad cheerleaders, who chant and cheer their unified Korea team onward. They also sang a song about unity and peace, which made me think that hockey might solve political problems that nobody could solve for the past 65 years. Didn’t help them too much against stronger and more experienced foes, but after noticing how well the team came together, it occurred to me that sports can, indeed, conquer all problems.

Angie Ruggiero, a very impressive young woman who was a star at Harvard and on several U.S. Olympic and National teams, is now an executive director of the International Olympic Committee. She came up with a unique idea: The Korea women’s Olympic team should be submitted for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fantastic idea.