Champions (almost) collide in North American puck duel

Do you remember when the NCAA agreed to send its national hockey champion to face its Canadian counterpart for a North American championship game? Neither does anybody else. But it happened — the agreement, if not the game.

The NCAA described the championship format in its Nov. 1, 1973, newsletter as follows:

North American Ice Hockey Championship Now Reality

The 1974 NCAA ice hockey champion will play the Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union champion for the first North American Ice Hockey championship, it has been announced by the Officers of the NCAA. The championship, an international first for the NCAA, will be held the weekend following the NCAA Championship tournament, which is March 14-16, 1974, at the Boston Garden Arena. The site for the annual one-game confrontation will alternate each year with Canada hosting the American team in 1974. The championship has been proposed for several years and final hurdles have now been cleared.  Participation by the NCAA champion would be governed by NCAA rules and regulations and expense arrangements for both teams will be the same as in the NCAA Championships. The visiting team will be allowed three days per diem for an official party of 25 persons, which includes 17 players plus goalies. The Canadian and American teams will play for a symbolic trophy, suitable for the North American Ice Hockey Championship, which will be held by the winning team. All players will receive a watch commemorating the championship game.

As falling leaves gave way to falling snow, favorites emerged. Top-ranked Michigan Tech University looked good on the American side, validating the national poll conducted each week by its flagship radio station, Houghton-based WMPL, by stomping its way through the west under legendary coach John MacInnes, a Toronto native. In Canada, Tom Watt’s University of Toronto squad seemed like a sure bet after winning five consecutive Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union national titles and rolling through the early season without a defeat.

Harvard and Boston University, traditional Hub powers, were dueling with upstart New Hampshire for eastern NCAA bragging rights. By mid-February, all three were ranked among the nation’s top ten. In the west, despite staggering through an 0-4-1 start, Minnesota rebounded to contention with a nine-game unbeaten streak featuring wins over nationally ranked Michigan State and Harvard. Herb Brooks, who had not yet become legendary, continued challenging his squad, telling the University News Service that they had potential to get to the top if every player was willing to pay a price. As the Gophers eyed first-place Michigan Tech, Denver nipped at their heels.

North of the border, the race was similarly diverse. Alberta and Calgary were tangled in the west, while St. Mary’s was cruising through the Atlantic. Sir George Williams led the Quebec race, fortified by the superb netminding of Bernie Wolfe, soon to become the Washington Capitals’ first-ever goaltender under contract. In Ontario, there was the constant looming shadow of Toronto, but Western Ontario, York and Waterloo were compelling underdogs. Waterloo was particularly intriguing thanks to its unstoppable top line of Ron Hawkshaw, Russ Elliott, and Mike Guimond. More than a threat each time they stepped on the ice, Guimond’s line was a promise, amassing 262 points in 35 games. Hawkshaw led the way with 50 goals and 41 assists.

Ron Hawkshaw comprised one-third of Waterloo's lethal top line in 1973-74.

“That was our first year together and I’m not really sure why we clicked, but we all had the ability to score and I think that made it difficult for other teams to focus on just one player,” said Hawkshaw, who at 20 years of age was two years younger than Elliott, the line’s physical presence, and Guimond, the center.

The Warriors hit their stride at a Christmas tournament in Oswego, N.Y., which they won, and carried that momentum through the remainder of the regular season and into playoffs. “We always thought we could win, but the biggest hurdle was the University of Toronto,” said Hawkshaw.

American Races Tight to the Finish

Back in Minnesota, the Gophers chased Michigan Tech through February, finally succumbing to the Huskies twice on the final weekend of regular season play. Minnesota’s second-place finish earned the Gophers a first-round WCHA playoff date with Michigan, a battle that was decided in the two-game, total-goals format. Minnesota trounced the Wolverines 5-1 in the opener and coasted to a 10-5 total-goals edge after the final game, setting up a second-round meeting with Denver. The Pioneers proved a much tougher test, rallying for a 3-3 tie in the opening game. The teams met the following afternoon to settle the matter, with the late-winter sun piercing the Williams Arena windows.

“We were leading 1-0 after one, but in the second period, we were in the sunlit end,” recalled Brad Shelstad, Minnesota’s goaltender and senior captain. “Bob Young took a long shot that I fumbled into the net. I started grumbling to the official, trying to create some doubt in the fans’ mind – it was my hometown; I wanted them to help me out.”

Frustrated but unshaken, Shelstad quickly won back the fans’ praise with several excellent saves, his rapid regroup spawned by in part by veteran savvy. “I felt like I came into my own that year,” he said. “I developed some mental imagery techniques and that helped me feel more confident.”

Senior captain Brad Shelstad backstopped Minnesota to new heights in 1973-74.

Shelstad’s unwavering play held the tie until midway through the third period when John Harris slid a backhander past Denver’s Pete LoPresti to give Minnesota a 2-1 edge. “It was a beautiful sight to see that red light,” said Shelstad. “Then I knew we just had to hang on for half a period and we’d be going to the national tournament.”

Sixth-place WCHA finishers the year before, the Gophers were soon packing their bags for Boston with a national championship in sight, but the remarkable turnaround was little surprise to Brooks. “I’ve said from the start of the season that this team was a team of destiny,” he told Jon Roe of the Minneapolis Tribune. “A lot of people laughed at that, but I still believe. The reason I believe is that we have good people. They have their heads screwed on right and for the last six months, they’ve worked for this.”

Meanwhile, the eastern playoff clashes were just as taut. New Hampshire, the regular season ECAC conference champion, fell unexpectedly in overtime to Rensselaer, a loss which ended the Wildcats’ season at 22-9-0. Harvard, meanwhile, ventured through to a championship showdown against Ed Walsh, Vic Stanfield and Boston University. The Terriers, still smarting from a Beanpot Tournament loss to Harvard, got their revenge with a 4-2 triumph in the ECAC championship, a victory that secured Boston University’s spot in the national tournament it would host one week later. The Terriers and Gophers would be joined by Michigan Tech, the WCHA champions, and Harvard, despite its loss in the ECAC final.

Brooks evaluated the field for the University News Service, admitting to know very little about Boston University, too much about Michigan Tech and just enough about Harvard, who the Gophers defeated 6-3 in December at the St. Louis University Holiday Tournament.

Year of the Upset in Canada

To the north, ominous Toronto rumbled onto the Varsity Arena ice against Western Ontario in the OUAA playoffs. Hawkshaw’s Waterloo squad was scheduled to play afterward against York University, so they watched from rinkside as the Mustangs of Western bolted out to a stunning 5-1 lead. The Varsity Blues stormed back with three third-period goals, but it wasn’t enough. The giants of Canadian college hockey had been toppled on their own ice, 6-4, despite outshooting Western “something like 63-9,” recalled Hawkshaw.

Waterloo then calmly dispatched York by an 8-4 count with Hawkshaw scoring three goals, Elliot two, and Guimond adding four assists. The Warriors’ top line sizzled again the next night, ending Western’s Cinderella run with a 6-4 triumph during which Hawkshaw and Guimond both recorded a pair of goals. The win gave Waterloo its first OUAA championship in 70 years, setting up a best-of-three national semifinal showdown with the University of Calgary. Waterloo’s Memorial Arena – the Grand Old Lady of Caroline Street – would be the site, a stoic, angular barn surrounded by a bland brick shell. Its uninspiring exterior hid a richly rugged core, with dramatically arched wooden trusses, intimate seating and a smaller-than-standard rink.

“Calgary was a good team, but I think they were unable to adjust to our small surface,” said Hawkshaw, who scored a pair of goals in the series’ opening game to help Waterloo gain a 6-3 victory. Four-hundred miles to the east, St. Mary’s edged Sir George Williams 5-4 in the other semifinal to grab the series lead. But there was yet another upset brewing as the Georgians stormed back to oust St. Mary’s with consecutive wins. Waterloo took the easier route, dispatching Calgary in two straight. The Canadian finals would match a pair of unlikely foes.

Thursday, March 14, 1974

With Waterloo and Sir George Williams preparing for their Saturday afternoon meeting in Toronto, Minnesota and Boston University were clashing at rat-infested Boston Garden, where rumors about rink employees managing the vermin population with air rifles spread through the press box. Minnesota seized the initiative, jumping to an early 3-0 advantage before the Terriers surged back into the game. Losing leads of 3-0 and 4-2, Minnesota was haggard through the third period. The situation turned critical when the Terriers gained a power play with 44 seconds remaining in regulation. The game, tied at four, was theirs to win. The partisan hometown crowd was thirsty for victory. But just as they were about to drink from the chalice, Minnesota’s Mike Polich dumped it on them, blasting a 35-footer past Walsh with 13 seconds remaining. Minnesota was moving on to the championship.

Four times previously, Minnesota had advanced to the national tournament and each time they returned in disappointment. The Gophers’ chance to erase those memories would come in 36 hours.

Friday, March 15, 1974

The campus was buzzing in Waterloo, where the university newspaper appeared in morning bundles with a note saying the Canadian champion “will be contenders to play the American championship team.” The news spiked anticipation.

In Boston, as evening fell, Harvard was about to meet No. 1 Michigan Tech for the right to play Minnesota in Saturday night’s NCAA championship game. Like the night before, one team quickly built a 3-0 lead – with Harvard gaining the advantage – but Michigan Tech stormed back to send the game into overtime and Huskies winger Bill Steele netted the game-winner just 31 seconds into the extra frame.

Michigan Tech winger Bill Steele celebrated with the MacNaughton Cup in the spring of 1974. His overtime goal against Harvard put the Huskies into the national championship game against Minnesota.

Saturday, March 16, 1974

As CBC made its final preparations for the CIAU championship telecast, the Toronto Star was rolling off the presses. It landed on doorsteps shortly before the 2 p.m. faceoff. Sequestered inside Varsity Arena, the head coaches were taping a pre-game interview for CBC, oblivious to the Star and its “More than title on line as Michigan gains final” headline. When the cameras stopped, conversation turned to their potential NCAA foe.

“John McConachie from the CIAU was there and he informed us that the winning coach and an administrator had to be on a call later that evening,” recalled Bob McKillop, Waterloo’s head coach. “I believed at the time that it was for a conference call-type press conference.”

McKillop then turned his attention to the matter of a national championship. Well-liked and technically sound, the veteran bench boss had already guided his Warriors past Sir George Williams by a 7-2 margin earlier in the season and he was focused on maintaining that superiority. As the puck dropped, readers of the Saturday Star learned of a new development:

Michigan Tech goes into tonight’s game against the University of Minnesota at the Boston Garden carrying more than just the weight of winning the NCAA hockey title on its shoulders. Also perched up there is the task of saving face for the NCAA executive and the future of the North American college hockey championship game. If Michigan wins the NCAA title, it has agreed to meet the winner of this afternoon’s Canadian hockey championship game at Varsity Arena between Waterloo and Sir George Williams for the North American title. However, should Minnesota win, then the game will not take place and the future of such an annual contest would be placed in jeopardy. (Toronto Star, March 16, 1974)

Waterloo, meanwhile, was trailing the Georgians despite outplaying them. Wolfe, Sir George Williams’ stalwart sentinel, was brilliant, and things looked bleak for Waterloo early in the third period, with the Georgians holding a 4-2 lead. Then unheralded Rob Madeley broke through for the Warriors, bringing them to within one goal. Soon Waterloo scored the equalizer and Warriors goaltender Jake Dupuis took his turn in the spotlight with a flurry of saves to send the game into overtime.

Guided by a format even stranger than the WCHA’s two-game, total-goals playoff, the CIAU championship overtime was a 10-minute affair regardless of how many goals were scored. Sir George Williams scored once, but Waterloo’s top line scored twice. The final tally was 6-5 in favor of the Warriors. Canada’s college hockey crown was theirs. “The victory was tremendous, especially because it was Waterloo’s first national title of any kind,” said Hawkshaw.

Following a raucous celebration, McKillop’s team headed back to Waterloo, but he stayed in Toronto with CIAU officials who were feverishly seeking details about the NCAA kafuffle. Meanwhile, the puck was dropping in Boston.

Michigan Tech and Minnesota skated through 15 scoreless minutes before freshman John Sheridan gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead. Minnesota extended the margin early in the second when John Perpich’s shot from the left point found twine. The Huskies pulled within one goal late in the period, but Minnesota added two in the third and rode Shelstad’s solid goaltending to the win. Like Waterloo had done hours earlier, Minnesota now basked in the glow of its first national championship.

“Michigan Tech was a rival and we owed them one,” recalled Shelstad. “And, when you make it that far, you want to make it all the way.”

In victory, the Gophers became just the second team comprised entirely of American players to claim the NCAA title, joining Boston College’s 1949 squad. But unlike the Eagles of ’49, Minnesota marched to the top without a single player earning All-America honors, an injustice that stoked their fire.

“It says something for Minnesota high school hockey and all of our kid programs,” Shelstad told John Gilbert of the Minneapolis Tribune. “We have no All-Americans, but we’re all Americans.”

Like Minnesota, Waterloo was also snubbed for national honor team selections, failing to place any of its players on the All-Canada Team, another uncanny parallel between the champions.

Brooks was blunt in his post-championship commentary. “Brad really deserved the All-American award,” he told Gilbert. “He deserves every award they can give. I thought he was also the WCHA’s most valuable player, but they gave that award to Doug Palazzari. Brad was the big reason we finished second in the WCHA. Palazzari and Colorado College finished ninth.”

Shelstad finally did earn a measure of justice by being named the tournament MVP. He was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Polich, who finished the year as Minnesota’s leading scorer.

Back in Toronto, the CIAU and McKillop were still waiting for a call. It came two hours late.

“It was an ‘NCAA official’ and it was a very short call,” said McKillop. “I only heard one side of it. We were told that ‘some issues still needed to be resolved’ and they would be in touch.”

McKillop returned to Waterloo with more questions than answers. The Star explained the situation in its March 18, 1974, edition as follows:

Waterloo was to have met the winner of the U.S. college championship this weekend for the North American college championship. But hopes for that game, the first of its kind, were destroyed when the University of Minnesota won the NCAA title by beating Michigan Tech, 4-2, Saturday night. Minnesota had earlier said they would not participate in such a contest.

That such a contest was even considered by Minnesota was a surprise to Gopher players.

“I never heard anything like that then or since,” said Shelstad. “I don’t even recall ever hearing rumblings about it. There was never a plan for it that we were aware of.”

Polich, who packed his bags for the World Championship immediately following the win over Michigan Tech, echoed his captain’s recollections.

“It’s all news to me,” he said. “We never heard about it.”

Their Canadian counterparts certainly had, and they remember their coach calling a post-championship team meeting during which he informed them that the game against Minnesota wouldn’t be played.

“I asked Carl Totzke, who was in conversation with the CIAU, if the problem was on our end or the NCAA’s, and he said he believed it was the NCAA and a ‘facility problem,’” said McKillop.

Whatever the reason, the championship wasn’t played and all future plans for the contest evaporated.

“We weren’t really that disappointed about not playing the NCAA winner,” said Hawkshaw. “We had already accomplished so much.” Minnesota, having finally reached its own peak, shared the sentiment.

– Jayson Hron

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2 thoughts on “Champions (almost) collide in North American puck duel

  1. Pingback: Minnesota Duluth vs. Maine, 28 years in the making | Rink and Run

  2. Pingback: Programming Note: Historically Inclined in The Hockey News | Historically Inclined

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