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UMD's 1983-84 men’s hockey team lost title game but made a memorable run

Coach Mike Sertich is lifted off the ice by Minnesota Duluth players after the Bulldogs won the WCHA regular-season championship in February 1984. (Photo courtesy UMD Athletics)1 / 3
Minnesota Duluth assistant coach Jim Knapp (left), head coach Mike Sertich and assistant Glenn Kulyk guided the Bulldogs to their first NCAA title game in 1984. (Photo courtesy UMD Athletics)2 / 3
Minnesota Duluth defenseman Tom Kurvers won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award in 1984 as the nation’s top Division I player. (Photo courtesy UMD athletics)3 / 3

Tom Kurvers knows that when the 30-or-so members of the 1983-84 Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team gather Friday for a 30-year reunion, talk won’t center on the Bulldogs’ painful four-overtime loss to Bowling Green State in the NCAA Division I championship game.

“Like every other 30-year reunion, it’ll be about waistlines and hair loss,” Kurvers, 51, said by cellphone Friday as he walked off a Brainerd-area golf course.

Though age may have taken its toll on some of the players and coaches from UMD’s golden generation, memories of the ’83-84 team’s accomplishment haven’t dimmed. That squad became the first from UMD to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season title and postseason tournament, and the first to reach the NCAA Frozen Four.

“It was quite a month,” said Kurvers, a senior defenseman who that season became the first of UMD’s five Hobey Baker Memorial Award winners. “The memory is more than just the game itself; it’s the rise to make it there and be a part of it.”

With future NHL players such as Kurvers and fellow defensemen Norm Maciver and Jim Johnson and high-scoring forward Bill Watson — who won the 1985 Hobey Baker — the Bulldogs were stacked with a talented roster in Mike Sertich’s second year as head coach and ninth in the program.

Upon reflection, Sertich wishes he had another chance to appreciate the moment.

“I wish I could go back and enjoy it; I don’t think I did at the time,” said Sertich, who lives in the area and will attend the reunion at Grandma’s Sports Garden. “Everything was so new; I had never been (to the Frozen Four) before. I didn’t know what I was doing at times.”

The playoff run began when senior left winger Bob Lakso notched a hat trick against Wisconsin to give UMD its first WCHA title, coming several months after athletic director Ralph Romano suffered a heart attack and died at a UMD-Denver game at the DECC.

Playing deep into March was so unheard of at UMD that the team’s home arena, the DECC, was booked with another event when the WCHA playoff championship series took place. So UMD and North Dakota instead squared off at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, with the Bulldogs winning 12-6 in the two-game total-goal series.

One week later, UMD downed visiting Clarkson to win its first NCAA playoff series -- the Bulldogs had lost to Providence the year before in their first NCAA tournament appearance -- and qualify for the Frozen Four in Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the “Miracle on Ice” four years earlier. UMD’s own miracle on that ice sheet came when Bill Watson scored in overtime in a 2-1 semifinal victory over North Dakota.

In between the semis and the final, Kurvers was awarded the Hobey Baker as the top player in Division I.

“Our (team) success led to that (individual) award for both myself and Bill Watson a year later,” said Kurvers, a former Tampa Bay Lightning assistant general manager and now senior advisor to Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.

The next night, UMD held a two-goal lead over Bowling Green with less than 10 minutes to play in the third period. An odd bounce off the boards led to the tying goal with 1:47 to play and then Gino Cavallini ended college hockey’s longest game up until that time at 7 minutes, 11 seconds into the fourth overtime, spoiling a record 55-save performance by UMD goaltender Rick Kosti and ending UMD's season at 29-12-2.

“It was a game that got away from us,” Kurvers said. “We had control of the game and had chances in overtime and weren’t able to finish.”

But those aren’t the memories Kurvers and others choose to remember.

“You can only have one champion and you have to have a loser with it. It’s part of the great drama of sports,” he said. “So we were part of a terrific game, and that’s what you carry with you when you get to this age. The pain was there that night and again the first time you started chewing on it with your buddies. But the magnitude of the event overtakes the pain at some point for everybody.”

Sertich, who brought the Bulldogs back to the Frozen Four the following year only to lose to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in a three-overtime semifinal, believes the Bulldogs’ run did more than just pacify Northland sports fans. He says an economically-depressed area was transformed virtually overnight.

“I don’t think till this very day that (the players) realize the magnitude of what they achieved,” Sertich said. “It was like the perfect storm. Our area was going through economic tough times. UMD was a big contributor to the economy here, and the focus on hockey was an outlet for people. We had lost the air base and there was a population shift, and a lot of industry moved away. It was a tough time here.

“One of the bright spots was that hockey team. They endeared themselves to the community and the community came back with fantastic support. The rest is history.”

It took another 27 years, until 2011, before UMD won its first championship, beating Michigan 3-2 in an overtime game that finally went the Bulldogs’ way. Some members of the ’83-84 team such as Kurvers, Maciver and Mark Odnokon sat together in the Xcel Energy Center stands, while Watson was there as well as a UMD volunteer assistant coach. Watching their alma mater finally prevail exorcised any remaining ghosts.

“We celebrated their win with them,” Kurvers said. “It took a long time to feel like you were a winner.”

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