Scott Sandelin and Brett Larson worked together for six seasons on the coaching staff at Minnesota Duluth, winning a pair of national championships in 2011 and 2018 during Larson’s two stints as Sandelin’s assistant.
The two colleagues are now in their second season as NCHC rivals, with Larson’s Huskies set to host Sandelin’s eighth-ranked Bulldogs at 7:37 p.m. Friday and as part of Hockey Day Minnesota at 4:07 p.m. Saturday at Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.
Larson and Sandelin were back to being colleagues only a few weeks ago when Larson served as an assistant under Sandelin on the U.S. National Junior Team at the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic.
For Larson, it was just like old times.
“It was kind of like riding a bike,” said Larson, a standout defenseman for the Bulldogs and Denfeld High School Hunters, who later returned to his hometown twice from 2008-11 and 2015-18 to coach at UMD. “You just jumped back on and kind of fell back in the old habits.
“I thought (Sandelin) did a great job with the team. Even though we came up a little short, that team was really locked in and I could tell that they were listening to his voice and they were working hard for him.”
In addition to the World Junior Summer Showcase over the summer, Sandelin and Larson worked together on the Team USA staff for three weeks in December and January. Their most recent run together came to a close when the U.S. was eliminated by Finland in the quarterfinals, ending a run of four-straight medals at the World Juniors.
For Larson, this was his first World Junior Championship after previously coaching Team USA at the World Junior A Challenge in 2013 when he was general manager and head coach of the United States Hockey League’s Sioux City Musketeers.
It was Sandelin’s fourth time on staff at the World Juniors and second time as head coach. The Hibbing native was an assistant under Minnesota State-Mankato’s Mike Hastings last year when the U.S. lost in the final to Finland for silver.
Like when he hired him at UMD in 2008 and again in 2015, Sandelin said having Larson on his staff at the World Juniors was an easy call. Larson has really grown as a coach, and it’s been fun to see, Sandelin said.
“He’s a guy you want to play for,” Sandelin said. “He’s more confident in certainly everything he’s doing, and that comes as you get more experienced. As a head coach, he continues to grow. He’s got a good future in the game, whether it’s still at St. Cloud or he moves on. He’s one of those guys who has that opportunity. He’s a guy that’s eager to learn.”
This weekend’s series in St. Cloud is more than just a reunion for Larson and Sandelin, but a rematch of the NCHC’s top two teams in 2018-19.
The Huskies blew past the Bulldogs to win their second-consecutive NCHC regular season title last year, sweeping the final regular season series with a pair of overtime wins at the National Hockey Center to win the Penrose Cup by 19 points over UMD.
The Bulldogs got the last laugh and then some in the postseason by beating St. Cloud State in double overtime in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. UMD then went on to win a second-consecutive NCAA title while the Huskies NCAA tournament again ended with an upset loss in the regional semifinals.
UMD is again part of the NCHC regular season title race, though it’s much tighter this time around. The Bulldogs (12-6-2 overall, 7-1-2 NCHC) enter the weekend just three points back of league-leading North Dakota, which travels to Miami this weekend.
Meanwhile, the Huskies (6-10-4, 3-7-0) are last in the NCHC, but only four points back of fourth-place Western Michigan in the battle to host a best-of-three series in the NCHC quarterfinals.
Larson said he wouldn’t call this season a “rebuild” but “it is a build” after the program graduated leading goal scorers Patrick Newell and Robby Jackson and All-American defenseman Jimmy Schuldt. Forwards Ryan Poehling (Montreal) and Blake Lizotte (L.A.) also left school early to sign NHL deals.
Minnesota Wild prospect Sam Hentges returned for his sophomore season and the center is leading the Huskies in scoring with seven goals and 15 assists. He missed last weekend’s series at Denver, though, with a lower body injury and is questionable to play against UMD.
L.A. Kings prospect David Hrenak is also back in goal for the Huskies, but after going 25-5-2 with a .906 save percentage and 2.18 goals against average last year in 31 starts as a sophomore, he’s struggled this year with a 5-7-4 record in 17 starts with a .890 save percentage and 3.12 GAA.
But Larson is encouraged by his team’s youth. Freshman goaltender Jaxon Castor, who backstopped the Huskies to an upset of Minnesota State-Mankato in the Mariucci Classic, is challenging Hrenak and SCSU’s all-freshman line of Ondřej Trejbal, Zach Okabe and Chase Brand reminds the coach a lot of the five freshmen UMD played on the blue line during their 2017-18 NCAA title run.
Now those young players have to find a way to beat the top teams in the NCHC after going 0-4 in the first half at Denver and North Dakota. After hosting UMD this weekend, the Huskies travel to Western Michigan. They close the regular season with three-straight series against the Fighting Hawks, Pioneers and Bulldogs.
“We played North Dakota and Denver both in their rinks and in all four of the games, it’s been tied or a one-goal game in the third period,” Larson said. “We haven’t been able to get over that hump.”