St. Cloud State defenseman Jimmy Schuldt ranks tied for fourth on the team in scoring with 5-12--17 in 18 games.
From the perspective of being outside of the program, it may have seemed that the biggest announcement that took place this past offseason for members of the St. Cloud State men’s hockey team was when then-head coach Bob Motzko announced he was leaving the program after 13 years as SCSU head coach. That was on March 27, just four days after the Huskies fell to Air Force in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Inside of the program, however, there was another move that took place. And while covered with less intensity than the Motzko move, it’s something that players in the locker room talk about still to this day. That one also came this past spring.
When the Huskies skated off the ice after losing to Air Force, many thought it was the last game for Jimmy Schuldt in a Husky uniform. After all, the Minnetonka product had just finished a historic junior campaign where he was named to the All-NCHC First Team, a First Team All-American and a Hobey Baker finalist. Instead, despite interest from the NHL, the Huskies all-everything team captain made the decision to come back for one more run.
The announcement, which coincided with the team’s year-end awards banquet, came at a perfect time for his teammates who were still feeling the sting of not only losing their long-time head coach, but also the pain of getting to, and losing, another NCAA tournament game. With no disrespect to their former bench boss, it was the latter of the two moves that members of the 2018-19 Huskies remember more than anything else when asked about the rollercoaster ride they have been on since last year’s dramatic and sudden end to their historic 2017-18 season.
Without probably realizing the full implications of his decision at the time, for many including St. Cloud State senior Robby Jackson, Schuldt’s choice signified the Huskies pounding a stake in the ground and putting the rest of the college hockey on notice. Schuldt, who by all accounts had numerous offers to play professional hockey, elected to come back for his senior season with one goal in mind – winning a national title.
That’s all Jackson and his fellow teammates needed to hear. From that point forward, the Huskies went back to work with an added determination in their eyes and an edge to their game. Jackson, for one, didn’t think that was possible prior to that moment. After all, St. Cloud State was on top of the college hockey mountain last March, skating into the national tournament as the No. 1 team in the nation and the top overall seed. He didn’t think things could get any more intense…more focused … more committed. He didn’t think his team could get even hungrier. The senior from Alameda, Calif., and last season’s leading scorer was wrong.
“I think that really showed, not only the guys but also the coaching staff and the community that we were all on the same page and we were looking forward to next year, no matter who was going to be behind the bench – that we weren’t going to change the way we play and we were still going to give 110 percent,” Jackson said. “We were still going to be an offensive team who wants to score goals. There really wasn’t going to be that much of a change. Jimmy is the leader on this team and that announcement spoke volumes as to where the whole locker room and the entire team was at and how we were committed to taking that next step.”
Blake Lizotte, a member of the 2018 NCHC All-Rookie Team, agrees.
“He’s a huge piece for us on the ice, but even more so off the ice,” Lizotte said. “He’s an awesome guy and one the best guys you will ever meet. All of the guys were really excited to have him back. I think it just helped everyone relax and confirmed that we were all on the same page and ready to take another shot at it.”
And then there was that other announcement.
Great during the 2017-18 regular season, yet still without a victory when things mattered the most, the St. Cloud State men’s hockey search committee began to focus in on an assistant coach in Duluth, one who had helped build a winning formula that brought two NCAA Championships to the UMD Bulldogs in 2011 and 2018. On April 13, Brett Larson was named the third head coach in the history of the school as a Division I program.
Right from the very beginning – and even before the announcement was made – Jackson saw something special about the veteran coach who had coaching experience at the junior, college and national levels on his resume. Larson was also known for his ability to find diamonds in the rough and polish them. He had a reputation for developing players and pushing them to play at a level beyond themselves. Jackson remembers thinking that if Larson could do that for individual players, maybe he could do that for entire teams. Maybe he was the missing key for a program who has been knocking on the door for several years but had not been able to open it.
“Last year was great, winning the Penrose Cup and everything, but that was something I made clear to coach Larson and even the search committee when they were looking to hire the new head coach – we have maybe set our focus on the wrong things in my previous years,” Jackson said. “This year, if we win the Penrose Cup, that’s fine. If we win the Frozen Face-off, that’s fine too, but we have to maybe even get to the point where that’s not our focus and we need to look at those games like just another game because we have our sights set on April. We don’t want to be done early anymore like we have been my three previous years.”
“The players’ biggest concern was they just wanted someone who was going to come in and keep it going in the right direction – someone who wasn’t going to come in and try to start over again,” Larson said. “I think they were looking for someone with similar values and one who had a similar game plan that they have had here. I think they saw some similarities between the schools and the type of program I came from, and that maybe some of the things I learned there and helped get us to where we got to could be maybe just one or two little things that I could bring. In general, though, I could really tell they were, for lack of a better word, looking for someone not to screw it up.”
Now nearly eight months later, so far so good. So why is this time period being re-visited? To truly appreciate where the Huskies are now it would be an injustice not to recap the ebb and flow of their journey the last several months. After losing to Air Force and shortly after, their legendary head coach, things appeared to be spiraling towards uncertainty. Now? Thanks to several factors including their all-everything defenseman returning in Schuldt and the arrival of a new head coach with significant history in Larson, St. Cloud State now finds themselves as the No. 1 team in country (again). The Huskies, who suffered only their second loss this past weekend, are now 14-2-2 overall and 6-0-2 in the NCHC.
It’s been a dominating performance on both sides of the puck, and while the Huskies freshman class has been good, the party has been dominated by some of those returners who were given a shot in the arm last spring when Schuldt’s announcement made it clear that St. Cloud State had unfinished business. Individually, 10 players have scored 10 or more points including seniors Patrick Newell (11-10--21), Jackson (8-11--19) and Schuldt (5-12--17). Five of the 10 leading scorers this season are upperclassmen and eight of the 10 played last season for SCSU.
Defensively, the Huskies have been even better, holding their opponents to 2.11 goals per game. Sophomore goaltender Dávid Hrenák and senior netminder Jeff Smith have combined for a combined save percentage of 91 percent and four shutouts.
Jackson and company admit that not a lot has changed from last year to this, aside from one notable exception – expectation. Some of that goes hand-in-hand with a veteran group who have fallen short of their ultimate goal for several seasons and are sick of watching the national championship game on television. The other has to do with a new head coach who knows what it takes to be there in person and is using that personal experience to push them to heights never seen before.
“I think having a new face with coach Larson has also been a really great thing for our team,” Lizotte said. “We already had a solid program prior to his coming here so he didn’t really want to change much when it came to how we played. But I think he wanted to add a couple more details to get us over that hump. Obviously we have never won here at St. Cloud. I think coach Larson knows how to win championships coming from Duluth. He knows what it takes to get it done and I think he has brought that element that we need to make that run coming down the stretch.”
“Everything he (Larson) has done from the beginning, he’s been very clear with us that just good isn’t good enough,” Jackson said. “We can always be better. The potential with this team has is unlimited and he wants us to reach that full potential. He pushes us every day. If we are having a bad day at practice, for example, coach Larson calls us in right away after 10 minutes and talks about how it’s unacceptable. He makes sure we are always giving it everything we have.
“That’s part of his character, too. He’s someone you want to please and he’s someone you want to play for. He’s a great guy and he knows his hockey. He’s done a good job of not really changing much, but he’s also amped up the intensity.”
“That’s been our staff’s plan right from the start – to keep pushing them even when we are doing well,” Larson said. “I’m glad that Robby confessed that because going through some of those individual meetings at the beginning of the year, the players felt that at times they had a tendency to get complacent when things were going well. So our goal has been to constantly push and constantly talk to the team about where we need to go next. We have done a lot of good things, but there is still a lot of work left to do. We’re trying to keep them from being too comfortable and realizing that we have a long way to go.”
Long way to go indeed. With 16 games left on the regular season schedule, Larson knows better than anyone else that the goal is, and will always be, playing your best come tournament time. And don’t be surprised if the first-year head coach brings in visual aids early and often to make his point. For example, last season at this time (18 games played) St. Cloud State was 13-2-3 and were at the beginning stages of a stretch of games where the Huskies became the best team in the country and strolled into the NCHC tournament on an 11-game unbeaten streak.
Their first win in that 11-game stretch was against Larson’s Bulldogs on Jan. 27. Meanwhile, for UMD during that same time period, the Bulldogs were 7-9-2 after their first 18 games. Taking it one step further, while SCSU was winning games left and right, the Bulldogs rolled into the NCHC playoffs winning 10 of their final 15 regular season games – which is good but not nearly as eye-popping as the Huskies streak. Then came the NCHC Final Five and two more losses for Minnesota Duluth.
The Bulldogs made it into the NCAA tournament by the slimmest of margins, and the rest is history. In the end, the college hockey world wasn’t talking about records, rankings or winning streaks, but rather who had played their best hockey when it mattered most. Instead, the talk at the rink centered on UMD’s NCAA title and the “national champions” banner they would be adding to the rafters of their arena.
There is a lesson in there and if needed, Larson will find it. The thing is though – he doesn’t think he needs to. While his goal is to constantly remind his squad what can happen and what matters most, he recognizes that he doesn’t have to point that out as much as you might think. Larson knows that while his squad and the SCSU program have been through a lot over the past several months and have seemingly come out of the storm better than ever, the group that follows him onto the ice every day is not interested in patting themselves on the back just yet – and he couldn’t be happier about it.
“There is a lot of pain from that and I think that pain is a huge motivating factor for this group,” Larson said about the way the 2017-18 season ended for SCSU. “I hope I’m right; I don’t get the sense that they are feeling a whole lot of pride and satisfaction right now about how they have handled things. Instead I get the sense that they are feeling that there is still a lot of work to do. To be honest, that’s where we want them; we want them to stay hungry. I think that just because of what has happened in the past they know there is still a long road ahead.”
“A lot of teams who have had the type of success we have had get complacent,” freshman forward Nolan Walker said. “They come to practice and feel like they have already made it and because of that, maybe they don’t work as hard or prepare as much. We get reminded a lot that it’s not the case here. We play in probably the best conference in college hockey and we know it’s going to be a challenge every night. We need to keep working on the little details and coming to the rink with the right mindset and attitude every day. That’s going to keep us moving forward in the right direction; just making sure that we don’t get too high or too low and that we stay right in the middle.”
“I didn’t think the team could get closer than what it was last year, but we have,” Jackson said. “Everyone knows what the expectations are. Guys have bought into that and nobody is afraid of getting on each other when things start to stray away from that. We are moving together as one in the same direction. The potential for this team is unlimited when you combine the ability we have on the ice with our cohesiveness off the ice. It’s fun to be a part of.”
The top-ranked Huskies now enter the stretch run as SCSU jumps back into its conference schedule with a key road series at Minnesota Duluth – Larson’s first crack at his former team as an opposing head coach.
Andrew Vitalis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.