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'Back on the map': The revival of Minnesota Crookston hockey

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Former Minnesota Crookston hockey players pose for a picture during an alumni game Saturday, Oct. 16, 2016 at the Crookston Sports Center.

Brett Shelanski remembers when he was a goaltender for the Minnesota Crookston hockey team; those freezing mid-2000s winter nights. The Crookston Civic Arena was packed to the gills cheering loudly for the Golden Eagles. The leaders of the especially-packed student section got their chants going, trying to either pump up the home team or distract the opposing goalie. 

UMC was the dominant force in the Division III Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association, having won two straight conference titles. Crookston was a fortress on Minnesota's northern plains. When the temperature dropped to 20 below zero and the arena was jumping, Shelanski sometimes thought the Golden Eagles’ opponents would rather be anywhere else.

But in 2009, facing budget cuts and a conference that had no use for the Golden Eagles anymore, Minnesota Crookston dropped hockey. Until this year, the atmosphere that Shelanski remembers so fondly lay dormant.

From 2001 until the program was first shuttered, the Golden Eagles were coached by Gary Warren, whose connection to the program dates back to the beginning. At Itasca Community College, Warren played against UMC, then known as the University of Minnesota Technical College, in 1973. That season, its second after a 25-year hiatus, it won the state junior college championship and finished second at the national tournament. 

Warren coached at Dakota College in Bottineau, N.D. from 1984 to 2001. There, he coached against Minnesota Crookston when it was a junior college, a member of the NAIA, and ultimately a fledgling member of the NCAA. He saw the program at all levels, and by the time he was hired there in 2001, he had already come to appreciate the hockey history, culture and raucous environment of Crookston.

“What we had through the years, when I came in as an assistant coach or when I coached here, it was instant entertainment,” Warren said. “For the university, for the youth hockey kids, the youth hockey organization and people that enjoyed watching hockey.”

It reminded Warren a bit of his teenage years, during the late 1960s, when he made the 20-minute trip from his Munger, Minn. home to Duluth to watch the Minnesota Duluth hockey team play. Warren would get as close to the rink as he could, right up against the chicken wire barrier, and take in the game standing just behind future NHL goaltender Glenn “Chico” Resch. This was long before UMD was a national power, but it was still the local team, and there was no place Warren would rather be.

Mark Huglen, who coached the Golden Eagles from 1996 to 2000, sums it up: hockey is “part of the fabric” of Minnesota, from the metro to Duluth to Crookston. College hockey at Minnesota Crookston weaved the university and the city deep within that fabric. UMC carved out its own little niche, serving as a destination for the talented high school players of northwest Minnesota and a source of pride for the entire region.

When the program was discontinued, for many former players and coaches, there was a gaping hole where the university’s heart used to be.

The Minnesota Crookston hockey team competed in the NCAA Division III Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association from 1999 to 2009, winning three conference titles.

On January 31, 2020, Minnesota Crookston announced it was bringing back hockey, in club form, as a member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II. 

The new UMC program wouldn’t be what it was before. It wouldn’t be a varsity-level program. But it would be run out of the athletic department, receive proper funding, have full use of the Crookston Sports Center. Steve Johnson, a coaching legend at the junior hockey level, was announced as the Golden Eagles’ head coach. It was clear that the program would be a legitimate heir to the university's extensive hockey tradition.

Many hockey alumni keep in touch today, via text, Facebook Messenger and all other forms of social media. Upon getting the news that UMC hockey was back, the vast majority couldn’t have been happier.

For Neil Andruschak, who played at Minnesota Crookston from 1997 to 2001, it brought back some of the best memories of his life.

In August 1997, Andruschak wasn’t sure of his next step. He was 21, having just exhausted his junior hockey eligibility, and was back in his hometown of Grandview, Manitoba killing time at the local rink. One day, an old junior coach of his walked in. Andruschak skated off the ice to greet him, and they spent a few minutes chatting and getting reacquainted. His coach asked him the question almost universally dreaded by young adults at a crossroads: “What are you doing next?” Andruschak replied: “I have no idea.” 

The coach left, went into his office and came back out 10 minutes later. “I just got off the phone with the coach at Crookston,” he told Andruschak. “You’re going for a visit.”

Andruschak took the visit, committed to UMC, grew into an all-conference defenseman and team captain his senior year. He befriended one of his teammates, they became roommates. The roommate introduced Andruschak to a woman, they started dating, they got married. They moved to her hometown of St. Cloud, had a couple kids. Andruschak coached college and high school hockey for a few years, and now works in education. “Without hockey at UMC,” he says now, “none of that happens.”

From the day he stepped on campus in 1997, Andruschak immersed himself into the community. He joined a pool league in town. He took several jobs, on campus and outside. He became friends with Brock Hanson, a UMC baseball player, and during early October, he would drive beet harvest for the Hanson family farm while also doing two to three hours of dryland training a day for hockey. 

Andruschak still feels a deep connection to not just his alma mater, but Crookston itself. Crookston High School holds an annual hockey fundraiser with a golf tournament and hockey tournament the first weekend of June. In St. Cloud, Andruschak fell in with a group of St. Cloud residents who also have Crookston connections, and they’ve been coming up for the fundraiser for the last decade. He still considers it a trip home, even though he’s supporting the high school. And he’ll always swing by the UMC campus to say hello to a few people he once worked with.

His experience in Crookston is a window into not only the life-changing experiences that those who came through the Golden Eagle hockey program often experienced. It’s a window into just how much Minnesota Crookston hockey still gives back to its community; that its legacy and importance to Crookston itself isn’t just limited to the rink.

“I still talk to Brock to this day,” Andruschak says. “I’ve told him, when I retire, you better have a truck ready for me.”

Gunner Ferrier, a freshman defenseman for the revived Minnesota Crookston hockey team, takes a shot during a Jan. 29 game against Williston State at the Crookston Sports Center.

From 1981 to 1997, Minnesota Crookston had a winning record every season. The Golden Eagles produced 12 National Junior College Athletic Association All-Americans. They won six conference championships and four state titles. Under head coach Scott Oliver, they went 24-3 and 26-0-1 in 1992-93 and 1993-94, respectively, winning NJCAA national titles both years.

“We had great crowds when the program was winning and having success,” Oliver said. “You get people coming to the games and everyone's excited about it, it was just a fun time to be involved with that hockey program. … It’s the players, it’s the community, it was a great run we had.”

But it was also a time of transition. In winning the 1994 national title, the Golden Eagles went out on top — it was their last season as a two-year institution. The university, as a whole, was growing, and the program would reckon with the consequences of that growth for the next 15 years.

When UMC first became a four-year university, it joined the NAIA, which didn’t sponsor hockey. This forced the Golden Eagles to compete as an NCAA Division III independent. In 1999, UMC became a member of the NCAA Division II — which, once again, didn’t sponsor hockey, with the exception of only one conference, the Northeast-10, located too far from Minnesota to be practical.

So Minnesota Crookston resorted to joining the MCHA, a Division III conference. It was never a perfect fit. UMC was the only public institution in the league. The majority of their conference opponents were located over nine hours away. The Golden Eagles’ Division II status meant that they couldn’t qualify for the national tournament. But the MCHA wanted to grow its membership, UMC needed games on its schedule, and the imperfect marriage came into being.

“We were a great team, we provided a lot and contributed a lot for that league,” Huglen said. “But it was a structural misalignment.”

On the ice, it was impossible to tell. The Golden Eagles didn’t lose a regular-season conference game until their fourth season in the league. They consistently drew larger, more involved crowds than the likes of Lawrence University or the Milwaukee School of Engineering. They made the final of the conference tournament in each of their first six years, winning the title in 2000, 2003 and 2004. 

“We were kind of big fish in a small pond,” Warren said.

But soon, the rest of the fish in the pond started to grow up, and the program’s eventual demise was set up once and for all.

Minnesota Crookston goaltender Bryan Dalbec makes a save in a game during the 2008-09 season, the Golden Eagles' final season of NCAA hockey.

To Oliver, when building a program, the central question is what the program is working towards; a tangible goal or prize to claim. In 1995, Minnesota Crookston’s first year as a four-year school, it knocked off Bemidji State. The Beavers were defending national DII champions, and made it two straight later that spring. Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles finished 30-2, but went home with nothing to play for.

“You need something like that in order to draw players in, in order to keep the program viable,” Oliver said.

Those who committed to UMC and stuck it out accepted this reality, according to Shelanski. They understood that winning the MCHA Tournament was the pinnacle; that they couldn’t go on any further. They had their Super Bowl, and they won it quite often. 

But that could be a hard sell on the recruiting trail, and eventually, it began to show. The Golden Eagles went 21-56-3 in league play during their last four seasons. They were bounced in the first round of the tournament in each of those years. 

New powers in the MCHA emerged as well. Those new powers — Adrian, Finlandia, Marian — had bigger dreams than what the Golden Eagles could attain, and they wanted to realize them. Because of its DII status, games against UMC didn’t count towards win-loss record and strength-of-schedule for NCAA Tournament bids. For teams looking to bolster their resume, UMC wasn’t a viable opponent.

“It came to the situation where we could no longer even pick up games anymore,” Warren said. “None of the NCAA schools would play us.”

Ultimately, the MCHA passed a bylaw stating that beginning with the 2009-10 season, only NCAA Division III members would be allowed in the conference.

Warren made overtures to other Division III conferences, but to no avail. He reached out to the Northeast-10 with a plan: the Golden Eagles could play three games out east on Thanksgiving weekend, three games over the holidays and three games in the spring, and compete in their conference tournament. But the Great Recession had already closed its grip. UMC’s athletic department was trying to cut back on operating costs. If the Golden Eagles were to join the Northeast-10, those costs would only skyrocket.

“As opposed to making all of our programs cough up $20,000 out of their budget, it was just easy for us (to drop),” Warren said. “We didn't have a place to play.”

On March 23, 2009, Minnesota Crookston announced the discontinuation of its hockey program, effective immediately. 

“We exhausted every possible option before taking this step,” athletic director Stephanie Helgeson said then.

Shelanski, an assistant coach at the time, remembers the meeting when the team learned the news; remembers scrambling to help find new homes for players he’d both played with and recruited; remembers telling incoming recruits that their college destination was no more. It felt like a party had just ended.

Freshman defenseman Josh Nelson is one of 11 players from Northwest Minnesota on the Golden Eagles' roster. Minnesota Crookston has historically recruited players from the region with great success.

Still, hockey remained alive at Minnesota Crookston.

The school, at the time, had no interest in any of its programs going the ACHA route, according to Warren, who stayed on as the assistant athletic director until retiring in 2017. But some of the players that remained on campus formed a club of their own. They organized everything themselves; scheduled all the games; found a recent grad or senior and made him the head coach. 

While the team played under the Minnesota Crookston name and logo, it wasn’t funded by the university. It lasted until 2012 in this state.

“We’re not that big of a school where you’re gonna find a lot of kids, put up a sign and say ‘Hey, hockey club meets tonight,’ ” Warren said. “It’s hard for it to survive just on a notice.”

Huglen, now a communications professor at the university, says that there were always “conversations” related to bringing hockey back. But now that it’s come into existence, it isn’t because of a campaign, petition or anything quite of the sort. Rather, the university finally saw an opportunity to bring back the program; an opportunity it didn’t see in the past.

To Huglen, it’s not about hockey for the sake of hockey. It’s about hockey as tradition; the lifeblood of northwest Minnesota, and well, why wouldn’t the region’s only four-year public school sponsor hockey?

“You want to do the right thing for the institution and for the community and for the region,” Huglen said. “Hockey is just one of those things, among all the different initiatives that just make sense for our area.”

Today, the ACHA is a well-established organization with over 400 men’s teams, three divisions and a national tournament held at state-of-the-art NHL facilities. It’s a home for club teams all across the country; “night and day,” in Huglen’s words, from what it was even a decade ago.

It also gives UMC a chance to grow into something it never was able to as a DIII independent or in the MCHA. The Golden Eagles are full members of the ACHA; no caveats or special considerations. They’ll have the chance to compete for national championships once again. Instead of boarding buses for games a full day’s drive away, they’ll play club teams right in their backyard. Minnesota State Moorhead. North Dakota State. The University of Jamestown. 

“I really think the sky is the limit” in the context of club hockey, Shelanski, now the head coach at Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa, said. “The location, the building, the league and the level that they have themselves at, I think, is perfect.”

The wealth of local competition should set the stage for rivalries to blossom; local fans to get excited; local players to see Minnesota Crookston as a destination once again. The latter, in particular, was one of the things the Golden Eagles of yesteryear were known for. Scroll down the list of all-time alumni, and you’ll notice names and families spanning multiple generations hailing from Crookston, East Grand Forks, Thief River Falls, Roseau and more.

UMC’s inaugural roster of 15 players has some diversity. Freshman goaltender Jake Sumner is from Southern California, freshman forward Tristan Morneault is from New Brunswick. But Ben Trostad, Brandon Boetcher and Ty Hamre are hometown players. Eight more players are from within a three-hour drive.

While recruiting, at the lower levels of college athletics, isn’t the institution it is at the biggest programs, it’s still the lifeblood of any program. Even club teams that don’t offer scholarships can sell prospective players on a storied tradition and a strong team to play on. The Golden Eagles are set up to do that as well as anyone.

“Any time you're developing a small university program, you've gotta be represented by the local kids and the regional kids,” Warren said. “That will bring that loyalty from their hometowns, their friends, their families to your program.”

Oliver, now an assistant coach at East Grand Forks, looks at one of his former high school players, Josh Nelson. After Nelson graduated last year, he was set to play junior hockey in Canada, before the border closed due to COVID-19. Instead, he enrolled at Minnesota Crookston, seeing a chance to play hockey and pursue an agricultural degree at the same time. Nelson, in this way, represents the unique niche that UMC occupies with its hockey legacy and location in the agricultural hotbed of the Red River Valley.

There will be many more players like Nelson over the years, Oliver says. A great number might even hail from Crookston, just like Boetcher, Hamre and Trostad now. 

“It brings excitement to the youth hockey level for kids to go down there and emulate,” Warren said. “You get your university team to put on clinics, and they work with the youth, and pretty soon their parents are bringing those kids to the games and the hockey fans in town start coming to the games. It just kind of mushrooms and snowballs.”

***

In October 2016, UMC held an alumni hockey game. Over 40 former players returned to Crookston for a weekend: some from Minnesota, some from much farther. A handful of players flew in from Texas, some from Canada. One player even showed up from Europe. 

To Andruschak, it was the perfect encapsulation of the program’s pride, and the potential it has now. Today, no longer do former players, former coaches, UMC students and local fans have to solely reminisce on the former. They can savor the latter as well.

Andruschak says it as simply as possible: with hockey, Minnesota Crookston is complete again.

“Getting hockey back puts Crookston back on the map,” he says. “With that new rink in town, that's a great small-college rink. I'd love to see that building just packed, and everybody cheering for the Golden Eagles.”

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730 or sports editor Jacob Shames at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

Follow along on Twitter @crookstonsports and @Jacob_Shames for all the latest stories and live game updates.

Over 40 former UMC players returned to Crookston in October 2016 for an alumni game.