Silencing the Critics

The men's hockey coach at the University of Minnesota might not fall on a list of the most scrutinized jobs in college athletics, but don't tell that to Doug Woog, the man who has held the position for the past 12 seasons. The average sports fan simply doesn't understand the pressure of the job. College hockey is the most provincial of major sports, its following limited mostly to New England, the Great Lakes region, the Rocky Mountains, and Alaska. On a national level, Minnesota hockey is not Notre Dame nor Nebraska football, Kentucky or Indiana basketball.

But this regionalism brings elitism. Those who follow college hockey carry microscopes, and they usually hone their focus on the Minnesota program. Never mind that the Gophers' basketball program was one of the four best out of 309 Division I teams last year. The state of Minnesota still looks to the maroon-and-gold hockey program to carry the torch for the university. And the college-hockey world, which has only 52 Division I teams, expects Minnesota to be in the top five every year. It's an amazing standard for a program that has won only three national titles in the 51 years of the NCAA hockey tournament; Michigan, by contrast, has won an NCAA-record eight and will always be viewed as a football school.

That's why the hockey Gophs' current seven-game losing streak has longtime fans scratching their heads--and pulling out their hair. It matches the longest skid in the school's long history, and has left the club with an awful 4-10 record. Worse yet, the team's next opponent, in-state rival St. Cloud State, is 10-4-2 and occupies the top spot in the WCHA. St. Cloud State is supposed to be the home for Minnesota high-school players whom Woog doesn't believe have the talent to play for him. If the state's second-tier players are winning, while Woog's charges are losing, the coach must have lost his touch, right?

Well, not really. The reasons for this season's struggle are fairly obvious, and have little to do with Woog. The team's two stars last season, Mike Crowley and Eric Rasmussen, were drawn from school by the lure of the NHL, and high-scoring defenseman Brian LaFleur is also gone. Minnesota began the year with only 24 players and was especially inexperienced at their own blue line on defense. Then came the injuries, which took tenacious sophomore Ben Clymer for the season after just one game and senior Jason Godbout, the team's most experienced defenseman, for three months. The most talented leftover in the crew is Dylan Mills, who has played all of 14 college hockey games. To injuries and inexperience we can also add bad luck: The Gophers have already lost seven games by one goal this year.

Woog certainly has felt the pressure before this season. His recent teams have started slowly and played their best hockey in the WCHA tournament, which Woog won for the first time ever in 1993, then again in '94 and '96. Last season, the Gophers rallied from a four-point deficit in the standings to tie eventual NCAA champion North Dakota for a share of its first WCHA regular-season title since 1992. But even last year's campaign was a tough one for the coach, who was under the spotlight of his own athletic department's investigation. Some media portrayals characterized Woog as a likable but irresponsible father figure who simply needed to spend more time with his complimentary copy of the NCAA rules manual; others made him into a calculating cheater who not only knew the rules but deliberately circumvented them, then tore up the evidence. In the end, the investigation found but two transgressions: Woog's $500 payment to then-senior Chris McAlpine in 1994, for which the coach served a two-game suspension last year and lost a scholarship for this season, and an isolated instance in which Woog bought his players beer on a road trip.

Now that his name has been cleared--sort of--his critics have returned to what they do best: questioning his recruiting and coaching techniques. The losing streak has given them plenty of ammunition. More than ever, frustrated Gopher fans are reminding each other that Woog stubbornly recruits only Minnesotans and changes his lines more often than a model changes clothes.

But Woog's stubbornness is often his strongest asset. He is fiercely loyal to struggling players, as long as they show maximum effort. He has supreme confidence in his teaching skills and believes that the motivated player will pay dividends in the long run, regardless of his skill level. Often he does. His best clutch player in recent years was Nick Checco, who struggled against physical teams in the regular season but consistently scored the key goals in postseason games because of his work ethic.  

Woog recruits only Minnesotans for the same reason he put $500 for McAlpine inside a hat under his desk in 1994--because he believes it's the right thing to do. In Woog's mind, if a player understands that the Gopher team consists solely of Minnesota natives, he will be more likely to play for his teammates and not for himself. And with the constant turnover of star players each year, Woog knows that it often takes time to build team chemistry over the course of a season. If his players are familiar with each other's skills and personalities on the ice, which they can be if they played with and against one another in high school, they might coexist more harmoniously off the ice.

If Woog can be criticized, it's not for limiting his recruiting to the state of Minnesota, it's for failing to judge the talent level in the state adequately. St. Cloud State boasted two of the best players in the country last year in Matt Cullen of Moorhead and Mark Parrish of Bloomington Jefferson, neither of whom were recruited actively by the coach. Both turned pro in the off-season. Their high-school teammates, Ryan Kraft and Mike Anderson, respectively, haven't been as productive with the Gophers. When a coach limits his recruiting to one area, his margin for error shrinks dramatically. As much as Woog can handpick his recruits and sign them to tenders (Colorado College's Toby Petersen is the only player Woog has coveted and lost), he can be chastised for misjudging a late bloomer who eventually becomes a star elsewhere.

The seven-game skid has brought about the most public displeasure since the 1993-94 Gophers began the year 0-5-1. But that team rebounded to come within a point of the conference title, despite injuries and the lack of proven big-game players--problems similar to the current team's woes. For the 1997-98 Gophers to improve, they must make similar strides: Woog's patience with his offensive chemistry has to eventually pay off, and a young defense must grow up fast.

Despite the ominous start, the Gophers' season is far from over. Woog's history of regrouping his team for a stretch run is just one reason for optimism. Minnesota's schedule for the rest of the season is very favorable. After the St. Cloud State series this weekend, the Gophers face only three two-game series that they should not be expected to sweep (at North Dakota, at Colorado College, and another home-and-home with St. Cloud State). And this weekend's crucial series begins a stretch in which Minnesota plays nine of 10 games at home at Mariucci, where they have won 32 of 38 games in the past two seasons.

Steve DeBus gives Minnesota its most experienced goaltender since Hobey Baker winner Robb Stauber. The senior has played 76 collegiate games and rarely gives up soft goals. While a goaltender exists in his own world, trying to focus not on the actions of his teammates but simply on the puck, confidence in one's goaltender is essential to team chemistry. The Gophs should have that faith with DeBus in the nets.

The forward crew, while lacking the clear-cut gamebreaker, has depth and talent in each class. No fewer than eight players are capable of producing a goal when the Gophers need one. Woog's job is to find out which of the smaller, quicker players (Reggie Berg, Dave Spehar, Aaron Miskovich) complement the bigger players (Anderson, Nate Miller, Rico Pagel) and the more versatile players (Kraft, Wyatt Smith, Casey Hankinson). With a scoring average of fewer than three goals a game, it's obvious things haven't clicked yet.

The defense also has plenty of room for improvement, and you can bet Woog and assistant coach Tom Ward have spent the team's recent three-week layoff working with each of the defensemen on positioning and puck support. In junior Bill Kohn and sophomore Mike Lyons, the Gophers have two defensemen who played extensively last year. Mills, while not as spectacular as Crowley, has the skills to become another Dan Trebil, a Gopher from 1993-96 who now plays for the NHL's Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Trebil wasn't fast or overly physical, but he made the right decisions at both ends of the ice, and his height and vision made him the best passing defenseman in college hockey.

The prediction here is that the Gophers will finish in the top three in the WCHA, make a run in the conference tournament, and spend a March weekend in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Albany, New York, for an NCAA Tournament game or two. Are they good enough to make the final four in Boston? Without a few breaks, no. But this team is capable enough to dim and eventually silence Woog's critics for the remainder of the year, granting him enough sleep until the 1998 team starts its season slowly.

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