How Sandelin's history nearly changed
Tonight and Saturday's 7:07 p.m. nonconference men's hockey games at Amsoil Arena between Minnesota Duluth and Northern Michigan are a reunion of sorts for Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin and Wildcats coach Walt Kyle, but on a much smaller scale th...
Tonight and Saturday’s 7:07 p.m. nonconference men’s hockey games at Amsoil Arena between Minnesota Duluth and Northern Michigan are a reunion of sorts for Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin and Wildcats coach Walt Kyle, but on a much smaller scale than it could have been had history taken Sandelin in a different direction in 1982.
That spring a young Northern Michigan University hockey program was in pursuit of Sandelin, a 17-year-old Hibbing defenseman.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, so were North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth.
Mike Sertich was mere months away from becoming head coach of the Bulldogs that spring, while the program then known as the Fighting Sioux was in the process of winning its fourth NCAA title. Though the Wildcats had completed only their sixth season of NCAA Division I hockey, they were just a year removed from back-to-back Frozen Four appearances.
“I wasn’t interested in a larger school,” said Sandelin, who was later drafted in the second round of the 1982 NHL draft by the Montreal Canadiens. “Coming from Hibbing, Northern (Michigan) and Duluth are very similar as far as the woods and the lakes and the things to do.”
Sandelin visited Marquette, Mich., at the end of March that year during the Frozen Four while North Dakota and head coach Gino Gasparini were beating up on Northeastern and Wisconsin in Providence, R.I. Sandelin flew back to Hibbing the day after the national championship and while he was in the air, then-Northern Michigan head coach Rick Comley and Kyle, his first-year assistant, drove to Hibbing to meet with Sandelin and his family in hopes of securing a commitment.
“It was one of those old-time, hard-sell weekends where I kind of knew we were under the gun because North Dakota had not made a move on him yet,” said Comley, who now scouts for the Chicago Blackhawks. “I knew they were going to, so I was doing everything I could to get a commitment out of him prior to North Dakota making an offer.
“I think I had mom and dad convinced, I think they were ready to say yes, but Sandy wanted to give Gino one more day. Walt and I knew if we walked out of that house and didn’t have a commitment, that it probably wasn’t going to happen.”
Added Kyle: “Funny thing, we walked out of the house and I remember there was the telephone line to the house and Rick goes, ‘Rip that thing out of the wall.’
“Gino did call and he ended up going to North Dakota and having a great career.”
Besides the difference in NCAA rules between 1982 and 2015 - no rules existed to prevent Sandelin from visiting Northern Michigan’s campus nor from the Wildcats coaches visiting Sandelin’s home during the Frozen Four - Sandelin, Kyle and Comley all remember recruiting to be much different now than it is today.
Fewer and fewer recruits are taking the path Sandelin and many others in Minnesota did, going straight from high school to the NCAA Division I ranks. Now players usually make a stop in junior leagues such as the USHL or NAHL.
“The best Minnesota kids always went right out of high school into college at that time. Always,” said Kyle, who took over as head coach when Comley left for Michigan State in 2002. “You’re not even in those living rooms talking to those kids about coming next year now. Your contact now is with young kids.”
Both Sandelin and Kyle have received verbal commitments as coaches from players as young as 15 in recent years, but back in 1982, a prized recruit like Sandelin didn’t even start receiving recruiting letters until he was a junior in high school. Comley recalls only recruiting Sandelin during his senior year.
Today’s players are still primarily interested in the same things, according to Sandelin. They value the place with the best opportunity to play, a good coaching staff, location and the school, but social media and other outside sources influence how those are perceived, he said.
“When I had to turn for questions, it was to my coaches in high school and my family. It wasn’t to an advisor. It wasn’t listening to social media,” Sandelin said. “You made your own decisions. (Social media) is a big part of today. Now kids make commitments and those things are out in 10 minutes. When I went to school, even at North Dakota, I didn’t know who was coming in there except for myself.”
For Kyle and Comley, 1982 was a turning point in how Northern Michigan recruited in Minnesota. In addition to losing out on Sandelin, the Wildcats missed out on current Minnesota Wilderness coach Corey Millen of Cloquet. He chose the Minnesota Gophers instead.
“We tried to get into the Minnesota high school market at that time and couldn’t crack it. It’s still tough for us to crack because of all the teams in state,” said Kyle, who has one Minnesota native, senior captain Ryan Kesti of Red Wing, on his roster this year. “You’re way down the list.
“There are only so many times you can bang your head against the wall and not get kids that you decide instead of going here, we’re going to (British Columbia) where we can get the kid.”