One memorable run: Gasparini to receive Sioux Award honors Thursday
It wasn't one of the Hrkac Circus acts in 1986-87. It wasn't a moment from one of the other two national titles. No, Gino Gasparini's most memorable game at UND goes back to the 1978-79 season, his first as head men's hockey coach. It was a game ...
It wasn't one of the Hrkac Circus acts in 1986-87. It wasn't a moment from one of the other two national titles.
No, Gino Gasparini's most memorable game at UND goes back to the 1978-79 season, his first as head men's hockey coach. It was a game in the storied Sioux-Gopher rivalry.
Gasparini's 1978-79 team had just come off a loss to Michigan State in the second game of a two-game series in Grand Forks. That meant the Sioux needed one win in a two-game series against the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association outright.
Minnesota won the opener 5-2, putting the pressure on the Sioux to win the series finale. UND came through, and Warroad, Minn., standout Dave Christian punctuated the 4-2 win in the final seconds.
"That was the night David Christian, on a breakaway, on an empty net, took a slap shot," Gasparini said. "That was kind of a fun moment. It's a moment you probably won't forget; maybe it was because it was my first year."
Or maybe because such all-time college hockey greats as Neal Broten, Bill Baker and Steve Christoff of Minnesota and Kevin Maxwell, Mark Taylor and Doug Smail of UND were matched against each other.
"The following year, a whole slug of those guys who were on the ice were either playing for Canada or the U.S. in the Olympics. It was a fun time," Gasparini said.
Gasparini teams went on to win four WCHA titles and three national titles (1980, 1982 and 1987). Taylor and Smail led the 1980 run, Phil Sykes sparked the 1982 team and Tony Hrkac was the catalyst in 1987. Gasparini, his staff and his players resurrected a program that hadn't won a WCHA title since 1968 or a national title since 1963.
So it comes as no surprise that UND is honoring former athletic director and coach Gasparini with the Sioux Award on Thursday in Grand Forks. The UND Alumni Association also will award its highest honor to Dr. Allen Van Beek, Larry Jodsaas, David Williamson and Gayle Shemorry Williamson.
Gasparini, who is in his last year working with the United States Hockey League after serving as president and commissioner, sent many players to the NHL as UND coach.
The one constant in his lifetime has been developing players. As the leader of the USHL, a development league for players ages 16 to 20, he has helped send countless players to U.S. colleges, some of whom have landed in the NHL.
As UND coach, he helped send about 40 players to the NHL while coach from 1978 through 1994. Some of those players exceeded expectations.
The most pleasant surprise to Gasparini was Garry Valk, a sixth-round draft choice of the Vancouver Canucks in 1987. Valk scored 256 points during 13 seasons in the big league.
"Garry Valk was a player who basically came out of nowhere, developed into a great power left winger and had a very good pro career," Gasparini said. "I thought Garry had a good chance of making it and playing, but I thought he had a great career because he was such an honest player, hard working and showed good effort game in and out.
"He might have exceeded the expectations, and he turned out to be a great pro."
One of the players Gasparini thought would make it big and didn't was Jason Herter, a No. 1 draft pick of the Canucks in 1989. Herter was the eighth overall pick in the draft.
But he played one NHL game, recording an assist for the New York Islanders during the 1995-96 season.
"Being a No. 1 pick might have put a considerable amount of pressure on him," Gasparini said. "I still thought he had the skill, the ability to play, but things didn't work out."
Gasparini deflects credit to his staff, which included such big names as Rick Wilson, Dean Blais and John Marks, and his players for his success as coach.
A little luck was involved, too, Gasparini says.
Craig Ludwig was a good athlete with a big body, but he was raw as a hockey player when he arrived at UND in 1979 from Eagle River, Wis.
But Ludwig's coach asked Gasparini and the Sioux to give him a shot, and Gasparini obliged.
"Once he got here, Rick (Wilson) worked with him," Gasparini said. "He was a great athlete, and he became a good defenseman."
Ludwig, known for his defensive skills, went on to play 17 seasons in the NHL, winning Stanley Cup titles in 1986 and 1999.
At UND, Gasparini said, "he was blocking one-third of anything going to the net."
If only recruiting were so easy.
Some players, such as defenseman Chris Chelios, got away.
One of Gasparini's assistants, Don Boyd, thought he had Chelios locked up, but Chelios went to the University of Wisconsin at the last minute after playing for a Moose Jaw, Sask., junior team. Of course, Chelios became an NHL all-star and still is competing in the league with Detroit.
"We thought we had him," Gasparini said. "Then, all of a sudden, boom, he was gone."
Gasparini said he looked at the USHL as being a fun retirement job when he took the position in 1995.
"It turned into a business that, as I look at it now, is serving an outstanding purpose in the development of high-end players," Gasparini said. "And that was our goal, to create an environment that would be extremely competitive for athletes, operated with some professionalism and would benefit the development of players so they might be able to do something with their careers at other levels."
The league grew significantly under Gasparini's leadership.
He says he went through some withdrawal after he left UND. He missed the contact with players and the games behind the bench.
But he grew to love his second job.
"I was presented some chances to get back in the business, at the pro level and stuff like that," Gasparini said. "The longer I was away from it, the easier the transition became. You flip the page and move on."
Though he felt some initial bitterness about the way in which he and UND parted ways in 1994, Gasparini says he has fond memories of his stay at the school. He wasn't the first choice to become head coach in 1978, but the Fort Frances, Ont., native has won more NCAA Division I titles than any coach in Sioux history.
"Any success we had I attribute to surrounding myself with great people," Gasparini said. "I'm extremely grateful to (former UND president) Tom Clifford. I owe a lot to him. I was in the business as an assistant, and he and his staff gave me the opportunity."
Gasparini said he doesn't plan to return to coaching after he's finished helping the new USHL commissioner, Skip Prince, transition into the job.
Gasparini does plan to start a hockey consulting business.
"It could be buildings, anything," Gasparini said. "I think I have enough experience and expertise in a lot of different areas that could be beneficial to individuals and/or companies."
Fee is sports editor of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1127; (800) 477-6572, ext. 127; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .