Being a Hibbing native himself, Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin had heard all about the small and speedy defenseman who was tearing apart teams on the Iron Range back in the early part of last decade.

So when Sandelin finally got his chance to watch this Scott Perunovich kid play as a sophomore for the Hibbing/Chisholm Bluejackets, the Bulldogs coach learned this range rumor was by no means an exaggeration.

“We knew he was a special player that could certainly bring some great things to our program,” Sandelin said this week. “He certainly delivered that his three years here.”

Perunovich, then 16, verbally committed to the Bulldogs toward the end of his sophomore year of high school in 2015, on April 1 in fact, and despite being just 5-foot-8, 150-pounds around that time, he’s by no means made the Bulldogs — or anyone else, for that matter — look like fools for taking a chance on him.

Now listed at 5-10, 175-pounds, Perunovich helped the Bulldogs win back-to-back national championships as a freshman and sophomore in 2018 and 2019, with a possible third-straight title derailed this year before it could begin because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was named the conference and national rookie of the year in 2017-18 as a freshman, went 3-for-3 as NCHC Offensive Defenseman of the Year, added the NCHC Player of the Year award this season as a junior and is a two-time — soon to be three-time — All-American.

Now, Perunovich is one of the final three still in the running for the most prestigious individual award in NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey, the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. UMD’s No. 7 hopes to be named the program’s sixth Hobey winner when the award is announced Saturday during the 10 p.m. Sportscenter on ESPN.

Sandelin said a lot of the things everyone sees now in Perunovich — speed, vision, hockey sense, instincts — is what he saw back in 2014-15 when Perunovich was taking 3-4 minute shifts and playing 30-40 minutes a game for the Bluejackets.

“He was dynamic,” Sandelin said. “He’s got all the same skills, though they’re better now. He’s stronger, older, more mature. He’s grown as a player, too.”

Hermantown's Cole Koepke gets squeezed by Hibbing players as he tries to work the puck around Hibbing's Scott Perunovich (left) and Nick Seppala in a 2015 Section 7A hockey playoff game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Goalie Isiah Dilley defends. Koepke and Perunovich would go on to be teammates at Minnesota Duluth. News Tribune file photo
Hermantown's Cole Koepke gets squeezed by Hibbing players as he tries to work the puck around Hibbing's Scott Perunovich (left) and Nick Seppala in a 2015 Section 7A hockey playoff game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Goalie Isiah Dilley defends. Koepke and Perunovich would go on to be teammates at Minnesota Duluth. News Tribune file photo

While the NHL was still a few years behind, college programs were all over Perunovich during his sophomore season with Hibbing/Chisholm in 2014-15, including St. Cloud State.

Perunovich’s small frame may have scared off some coaches, but not Bob Motzko, who as coach of the Huskies has never shied away from a small, speedy defenseman (see 5-foot-8, 185-pound Jack Ahcan).

Motzko said he first saw Perunovich early in 2014-15 against Hill-Murray. Perunovich had special written all over him, Motzko said.

“Everyone was quiet about it at the time, but that’s exactly what he ended up being — special,” Motzko said. “He’s a top three defenseman in my days, as special as they come. Just dynamic with the puck, fearless to make a play. He has the brains; a thought process at a scary level.”

Hibbing native Scott Perunovich skates for the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 squad in 2016 against Minnesota Duluth in an exhibition at Amsoil Arena. News Tribune file photo
Hibbing native Scott Perunovich skates for the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 squad in 2016 against Minnesota Duluth in an exhibition at Amsoil Arena. News Tribune file photo

After losing that first recruiting battle to Sandelin back in 2015, Motzko got another chance to land Perunovich as head coach of the U.S. National Junior Team in 2018.

But again, it was a fight.

Motzko shared this week the fierce discussions about which defensemen the U.S. would take to the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, New York. It centered around a trio of Bulldogs freshmen — Dylan Samberg, Mikey Anderson and Perunovich.

“Our guys wanted Samberg and Anderson, and I said, ‘That’s great, but (Perunovich is) their best defenseman,’” said Motzko, recalling the debate with the late USNJT general manager and USA Hockey assistant executive director Jim Johannson, who died in January 2018 at the age of 53. “I remember saying to JJ, ‘If we want Samberg and Anderson, how can we leave their best defenseman at home?’ So we took all three.”

Perunovich posted a goal and two assists in seven games for Team USA, which finished with bronze at the 2018 World Juniors. He’d finish with 11 goals and 25 assists in 42 games as a Bulldog. His 36 points led all freshmen defensemen in the country and were the most ever by a Bulldogs freshman defenseman.

That 2017-18 season finally caught the attention of the NHL, whose summer entry draft had twice passed over Perunovich. The St. Louis Blues took the Hibbing native in the second round, 45th overall in the 2018 draft.

Again, it took some convincing to draft the undersized defenseman, this time from the Blues’ amateur scouts Keith Tkachuk and J Niemic, who had fallen in love with the prospect while scouting him over the past year.

“They pounded the wall for him, they wanted him,” said Tim Taylor, the Blues’ director of player development. “They knew that he had talent. Keith Tkachuk, who played a huge amount of games in the NHL, a real good player, he sees something in him that he would love to have as a player, and that’s a defenseman that moves the puck and gets up there and really wants to win.”

Taylor and Blues development coach Glen Wesley, who became regulars at Bulldogs games the previous two seasons since the Blues drafted Perunovich, first saw their newest prospect in action in the fall of 2018.

They said they immediately saw what Tkachuk, Niemiec and everyone in the NCAA had been seeing for years. Taylor said he was surprised Perunovich had been passed over not just once, but twice in the draft.

“I was in awe of how quick he did things, and his speed and his agility and his quickness. He’s a smaller guy but he plays a fierce game,” Taylor said. “Once I saw him that first time, I knew he was a special player. Not so much because of his vision, creativity and skill, but because of his compete. That’s the one thing that stood off the charts for me.

“He wants to be a difference maker. He’s not just out there to take up minutes and distribute the puck. He wants to have the puck, he wants to make the play. Those are all great attributes to have as a hockey player.”

Minnesota Duluth junior defenseman Scott Perunovich (7) controls the puck in the second period against Minnesota on Oct. 25 at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth junior defenseman Scott Perunovich (7) controls the puck in the second period against Minnesota on Oct. 25 at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

After passing on a contract from the Blues last spring, the now 21-year-old Perunovich agreed to a two-year deal with the Blues on March 27 that could put him in the NHL this season, if the 2019-20 season does restart.

And no one is happier for Perunovich than Motzko, who just completed his second season as head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. After years of chasing after Perunovich, Motzko’s OK not having to game plan for Perunovich when the Bulldogs and Gophers open the 2020-21 season on Oct. 9 in the Ice Breaker at Amsoil Arena.

“This year I saw another level … he controlled the game,” said Motzko, who watched Perunovich put up a goal and two assists in a 5-2 UMD win over Minnesota this season at Mariucci Arena. “I’m very happy. He was a major threat this year. That game here, we didn’t have a great game, he took it over. The game was still in check, we just didn’t have one of those guys on our bench.”

2020 Hobey Hat Trick

Jordan Kawaguchi, Jr., F, North Dakota

Scott Perunovich, Jr., D, Minnesota Duluth

Jeremy Swayman, Jr., G, Maine

UMD Hobey Baker finalists

Bold indicates winner

2020: Scott Perunovich

2012: Jack Connolly

2011: Jack Connolly

2004: Junior Lessard

1994: Chris Marinucci

1993: Derek Plante

1986: Brett Hull

1986: Norm Maciver

1985: Bill Watson

1984: Tom Kurvers