Brian Idalski named 2013 Herald Sportsperson of the Year
Brian Idalski wasn't the popular pick when he was hired in 2007 to try to turn around the UND women's hockey team. And he knew it. "Oh, for sure," he said. "I don't think I was a lot of people's initial choice. People thought it was a slam dunk f...
Brian Idalski wasn't the popular pick when he was hired in 2007 to try to turn around the UND women's hockey team.
And he knew it.
"Oh, for sure," he said. "I don't think I was a lot of people's initial choice. People thought it was a slam dunk for someone else. I don't know, and I'm sure I'll never know, all the things that went on behind the scenes. But I got the opportunity. I ran with it and tried to do the best that I could."
Idalski inherited the worst team in Division I hockey -- one that went 3-31-2 the previous season and ended with 20 consecutive losses. But seven years later, the UND women's hockey team has been firmly established as one of the country's top contenders.
UND has been nationally ranked for all but two weeks in the past four seasons and, according to Minnesota coach Brad Frost, was probably an overtime goal away from a national title a year ago.
Idalski has built a renowned coaching staff that includes former Swedish Olympic coach Peter Elander, who has twice medaled in the Olympics, and former UND men's alternate captain Erik Fabian. The coach has also helped attract a number of elite players to campus -- six of which will compete in the Olympics next month in Sochi, Russia.
For his work in building the UND women's hockey program, Idalski is the 2013 Herald Sportsperson of the Year.
"I had a plan," Idalski said about his arrival at UND. "I knew that, culturally, things had to change. And I knew we had to recruit better."
Idalski admitted that he didn't think he had a great shot at getting the job in 2007 when he started hearing names of other applicants.
"I also knew those types of jobs don't come around very often," he said. "I thought that it doesn't hurt to try. I may get an interview and be able to practice on that and have some experience interviewing. When the list of finalists came out, I was like, 'Yeah, I have a pretty real chance.' That's when it hit me the most."
Many in Grand Forks weren't happy with the hire. Idalski wasn't the most experienced coach. He was successful at the Division III level at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but only had one year at the Division I level -- as an assistant at St. Cloud State.
A UND hiring committee liked his vision, though, and forwarded his name to then-athletic director Tom Buning.
After he got hired, Idalski went right to work, cutting players who he didn't think fit the bill for the program. But he found a handful of players who did, starting with his junior class of Melissa Jaques, Randi Motsko, Casie Hanson and Kelsey Fletcher.
"I have so much respect for those kids the first couple of years," Idalski said. "They really did what we asked them to do. Their buying in was huge. Their development was huge.
"That first year, we maybe won four games (and tied six). That was overachieving. That was way beyond what we probably should have done. That's why I have so much respect for those kids. I know how hard they worked and what they were able to do."
Then, in the fall of 2010, UND added three big names -- Jocelyne Lamoureux, Monique Lamoureux and Elander -- that would jumpstart the program.
The Lamoureux twins instantly transformed UND into a national contender and helped open recruiting windows as UND aimed for top athletes. Elander instantly gave credibility to UND among European players, and he soon started landing blue-chippers like Finnish Olympian Michelle Karvinen.
"I don't think people fully understand what (the Lamoureux twins) did to elevate the program," Idalski said. "I don't know if people fully understand how good they were."
In 2010-11, UND set a record for most wins in a season. Each of the following two seasons, UND broke that mark.
The Lamoureuxs graduated after last season, and many thought that meant the program would fall back to where it was in Idalski's early days. But the first half of this season is proving otherwise.
UND had its best first half in program history (12-4-2) and it was highlighted by an upset win over Minnesota, ending its NCAA-record 62-game winning streak.
Although the women's program has achieved success that was hard to envision a few years ago, Idalski says a lot of work remains.
"When we started, I'm kind of a hockey geek, and I looked at what the (UND) men accomplished and their history and their culture was awesome," he said. "The work ethic of their players and staff, the energy and passion around that program. . . we've been able to do some of those things on the women's side, and that has been awesome, but we still have a lot of work to do. There's still that final step of winning championships."
When UND first cracked the top 10 in the national poll, Idalski memorably told the press that he was sick of people patting him on the back for it, because it showed how low expectations were for the program.
That same drive is still there for Idalski.
"It was sort of the same thing after we beat Minnesota this year," Idalski said, "Yeah, we beat the streak, but we also lost the previous eight games against them... 1-8 isn't very good.
"When we reach the point where, after we lose to Minnesota or Wisconsin and everybody wonders what heck happened, then I'll know we're there."
Schlossman reports on sports. Call him at (701) 780-1129, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1129 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .