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College men's hockey: St. Cloud State coach Larson learning from the best

Tom Nelson / St. Cloud State University Former Minnesota Duluth captain and assistant coach Brett Larson is in his first season as head coach of the St. Cloud State men's hockey team. Larson and the top-ranked Huskies play the Bulldogs, the defending national champions, in an NCHC series Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena. This will be Larson's first time at Amsoil as a head coach.1 / 2
Former Minnesota Duluth assistant coach Brett Larson returns home this weekend as a college head coach for the first time. Larson and his top-ranked St. Cloud State men's hockey team play the Bulldogs, the defending national champions, in an NCHC series Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena. Tom Nelson / St. Cloud State University2 / 2

ST. CLOUD — It's early December and Brett Larson is taking care of a weekly duty he has given himself in the locker room at Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

It involves some precious notes from one of hockey's most famous coaches.

Larson took over as St. Cloud State's men's hockey coach in April. In August, he took part in a celebrity golf tournament for the Herb Brooks Foundation in Blaine, Minn., and met Kelly Brooks, Herb's daughter.

"She offered to give me a file of all his handwritten notes to go through," Larson said of the late coach, known most for guiding the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal. "I was nervous. I thought, 'I hope my house doesn't burn down when I have this (file).'

"It seems like he was thinking in notes. It's been a really interesting look into who he was. He was so far ahead of the game with sports psychology. You can see why he was so successful. He was way ahead of everybody else."

Larson received permission to take photocopies of Brooks' notes before he returned them. He's been finding appropriate notes for the Huskies and posting them on a clipboard near the team's weekly schedule.

This week's schedule is a special one for Larson and the Huskies. St. Cloud State (14-2-2 overall, 6-0-2-1 NCHC) plays Minnesota Duluth (11-5-2, 4-3-1) at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday in an NCHC series at Amsoil Arena. It will be Larson's first series at Amsoil as an opposing coach after the former UMD captain spent two stints with the Bulldogs as an assistant coach.

It's also a matchup between the defending NCHC regular-season champion Huskies, who are No. 2 in the Pairwise Rankings, and the defending NCAA Division I champion Bulldogs, who are No. 6 in the Pairwise.

His note this week from Brooks is not sentimental. Larson is drawn to the big picture outlook of Brooks' notes.

After receiving them, Larson said that he and assistant coaches Mike Gibbons and Nick Oliver spent a lot of time going through the notes of the former Minnesota Gophers coach who helped St. Cloud State transition to a Division I program in the 1980s.

"Gibby said something like, 'Herb is still coaching' " through the notes, Larson said. "Me and Gibby and Nick couldn't stop going through it ... It's been a really neat part of the whole process."

The process of the 46-year-old Larson becoming a college head coach started in West Duluth.

A Denfeld Hunter

Larson is the oldest of three children and was born in Duluth. His mother, Beth Grindahl, is a retired elementary school teacher. His father, Bob, was a deputy chief of police for the city of Duluth before he died in 2011. Bob played forward for the Bulldogs for one season before playing hockey at Wisconsin-Superior and then becoming a police officer.

Larson played in the 1988 and 1989 state tournaments as a freshman and sophomore, the last of three state tournament appearances that Duluth Denfeld has made.

Larson said he has taken many things from playing for Bill Vukonich at Denfeld.

"We called him the Mike Ditka of high school hockey," Larson said, referring to the former NFL head coach. "He had the big mustache and kind of looked like Ditka a little bit. It was that blue-collar, we-better-outwork-the-other-team, team-comes-first mentality that we all grew up with.

"That was the culture of the neighborhood we grew up in. Nobody was more important than the team. When you look at St. Cloud or Duluth, that's kind of the mentality of our teams."

Becoming a Bulldog

At Denfeld, Larson said he was recruited by Notre Dame, Boston College, Minnesota and Wisconsin. But remember, he grew up seemingly immersed in the Bulldogs, who were coached by Mike Sertich at the time.

Larson was considering playing at Notre Dame before running into Sertich at a camp.

Sertich, who coached the Bulldogs from 1982-2000, played alongside Brett's father at UMD.

"I knew Brett from the time he was born," Sertich said. "I watched him all the way through youth hockey. He was a product of growing up in the Merritt (Park) Rink system. They had quality kids in youth hockey at the time and were very well-schooled in the basics."

Sertich's philosophy behind the bench has stuck with Larson.

"Serty pushed us to get better every day and that's the big thing I took away from him as a coach," Larson said. "I think (current UMD coach) Scott Sandelin is a lot the same way, where you try not to let players feel comfortable. Keep pushing them to get better, never let off the gas."

From pros to coaching

Larson was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 11th round of the 1990 NHL Draft. His first two seasons after college, he played for the Madison Monsters, Louisville Riverfrogs and Utah Grizzlies.

Then from 1997-2001, he played for coach Steve Martinson with the San Diego Gulls in the West Coast Hockey League. Martinson is a former NHL player who played at St. Cloud State.

The final two seasons that Larson played in San Diego, he was a player-assistant coach for Martinson.

"The biggest thing when you're a player-coach is to lead by example," said Martinson, who is in his seventh season coaching the Allen Americans in the ECHL. "As a player, he was self-motivated and not a hard player to coach because he did not make a lot of mistakes."

Martinson was one of the connections that Larson had to Sandelin, a former University of North Dakota defenseman. Larson was working a summer camp with Sandelin when UMD needed an assistant.

And Larson said that his interview with Sandelin to become his assistant coach in 2008 was a rather short one.

"I remember Scott telling me, 'I'd like to have an alum and I need to have a guy who works with the 'D' and you're pretty much the only guy who fits the bill ... so he gave me a shot," Larson said with a laugh. "That was pretty out-of-the-box (thinking) at the time.

"I hadn't coached high school. I hadn't coached junior hockey. I hadn't done a lot of the things that guys do to prepare to get in."

But he's made the most of his opportunities since then.