Perunovich ranks at the top of Hibbing, UMD stars

John Gilbert

 

1.	UMD's Scott Perunovich turned on the jets to escape from his zone against North Dakota, just one part of his Hobey Baker skills. 2. Photo by John Gilbert.
UMD's Scott Perunovich turned on the jets to escape from his zone against North Dakota, just one part of his Hobey Baker skills. 2. Photo by John Gilbert.

The Scott Perunovich Era of UMD hockey has ended, gloriously, with the Bulldogs winning two straight NCAA championships and in perfect position to win a third this virus-hampered season.

Perunovich won the NCHC scoring title, and climaxed his third straight All-America season by winning the 2020 Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s best college hockey player.

Perunovich overcame the frustration of a season that wasn’t allowed to end by signing an NHL contract with the St. Louis Blues. That means at age 21, the 5-foot-7 flash passes up his senior year of college eligibility and leaves on the table a possible fourth straight All-America season, the possibility of a second straight Hobey — plus the possibility of an unprecedented fourth consecutive NCAA championship.

With no games to get aroused for, hockey observers have been busy concocting virtual games and arguing over various all-time teams. So the question arises of where this UMD team in general, and Perunovich in particular, fit into the school’s scenario. Not that Perunovich has had time to think of such vagaries.

“I’ve been up at our cabin ever since school closed, doing a lot of yard work and stuff to stay in shape,” Perunovich said last week. “There’s been a lot of action, but it’s all been good.”

The transition from college star to a future in the National Hockey League has been sudden but swift in the absence of playoff games and NCAA tournament action.

“I’m excited about it, going to the next level, although I haven’t talked about it too much with anyone from the Blues, so I’m not sure what they want me to do when the league starts up again,” Perunovich said.

His three years have flashed by, but in each of the three Perunovich has made a tremendous impact on UMD’s team and seasons. He left Hibbing High School after his junior year and played for Cedar Rapids in the U.S. Hockey League for a season before coming to UMD, where things happened fast.

The Bulldogs had gone to the NCAA final in 2016, losing to Denver, and the rebuilding was expected to be huge, with no less than five freshmen — Perunovich, Dylan Samberg, Mikey Anderson, Louie Roehl and Matt Anderson — joined sophomore Nick Wolff as the top six on defense.

Amazingly, UMD won the NCAA tournament, and Perunovich led the team in scoring. The next year, the Bulldogs won it again, although it was less of a surprise, with those five freshmen defensemen not only having proven themselves, but as solid veterans. Perunovich was hampered by a back injury to end the season, although he came back and played — carefully — but earned his second All-America honor.

“I was at about 65 or 70 percent, and that’s why I came back this season,” he said. “I wanted to finish my college career at full strength and give it my best effort.”

He did that, with 6 goals, 34 assists for 40 points as the leading scorer on UMD’s team and also in the entire NCHC. For his three seasons, Perunovich has 20-85—105 for his 115 college games.

“For sure, I’d rather set guys up than shoot, because it’s always more satisfying to me,” he said. “But I’ve been working on trying to shoot more.”  

Along the way, several other Bulldogs took advantage of pro offers and left school, including Mikey Anderson a year ago, and Samberg this season, along with Perunovich. Wolff, who had finished his eligibility, also signed, with the Boston Bruins.

That leaves only Matt Anderson among those five fantastic freshmen coming back for his senior year, which should be another major rebuilding project for coach Scott Sandelin.

“It will be a big opportunity for Mattie,” said Sandelin. “He’s filled a role for three years, but he’s been a little overshadowed, and he could have a breakout year as a senior. We need a new goaltender and a lot of new defensemen, and there’ll be some good competition, for a change. Even when those five came in as freshmen, we knew they would be solid, and that they can do things a lot of players can’t do. Scott has always had that great ability to make plays and ignite our offense, and we’ll all be watching him as a pro. I don’t like to single him, or anyone, out from this group, because everybody has contributed so much and given us such great leadership. Those guys played a lot of hockey for us.”

Perunovich and Wolff became partners on D, and both had a mischievous streak that didn’t escape Sandelin’s notice.

“They were both jokesters,” Sandelin said.

The question of where Perunovich fits in among the elite players to ever come out of Hibbing is interesting, because Sandelin himself was a top defenseman who went from Hibbing to North Dakota and then to the pros, and he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in 1986.

In the list of the top Bluejackets, Gary Gambucci, Mike Polich, Bob Collyard and Joe Micheletti might be the consensus top four, but if so, Perunovich stickhandles his way right in among them.

“And maybe he’s the best ever,” said Gambucci, who was an All-America at Minnesota and played in the NHL.

By signing a pro contract, Perunovich will also be judged anew, as to where he fits into the UMD elite list, where he became the sixth player named Hobey Baker. He followed Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson, Chris Marinucci, Junior Lessard and Jack Connolly. No other college team has had more than five.

Kurvers, who led UMD to the 1984 NCAA final four, was named Hobey Baker at that Lake Placid tournament, the day before the Bulldogs lost a 3-overtime heartbreaker to Bowling Green.

Watson won in 1985, a day after UMD had lost a 3-overtime heartbreaker to RPI in Detroit.  

Now an assistant general manager with the Wild, Kurvers scouts the colleges for prospects and has maintained a close perspective on UMD’s teams.

“Scott controls play,” said Kurvers. “He has puck skill and puck poise, and his ability emerged his freshman year and has only improved by the end of his junior year. Not many guys have the ability to calm a game down or to speed it up.

“And I assume he does that in intrasquad games and in the biggest games of the year as well. He’s not big, but he has strong legs. It’s not important to be tall and it allows him to play lower to the ice. The game has changed a lot in the last 15 years, and he has the ability to keep the puck in a great place, and the strength to be elusive.

“We’ll talk about him in a few years. He’ll have to shoot more in the National Hockey League, because he can’t keep beating guys at that level, but he has sure hands and is sure of his decisions, and he can bring calm out of the chaos.”

UMD’s rich history on defense include the likes of Kurvers, Maciver, Curt Giles, Dave Langevin, Jimmy Johnson, Keith Hendrickson, and a dozen others. Where does Scott Perunovich fit in?

As a three-time All-America, three time team scoring champion, league scoring champ, Hobey Baker winner, and a player who has never lost an NCAA tournament game, he ranks high.

“I was always proud of being from a school that had so many Hobey Baker winners, but guys would say we never won a championship,” Kurvers said. “What Scott Sandelin has done is turn UMD into a team that has won three championships, and is recognized as the best program in the country. And it is still turning out Hobey Baker winners.”