Finding the right notes: Larson's transition from UMD to SCSU gets boost from Herb Brooks
Duluth Denfeld, Minnesota Duluth graduate returns home this weekend for a series against the Bulldogs as an opposing head coach for the first time. Brett Larson is in his first season as the Huskies' head coach after being tied to the UMD program for most of his life
ST. CLOUD, Minn. - It is the beginning of December and Brett Larson needs to take care of a weekly duty he has given himself in the locker room at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
It involves some precious notes from one of hockey's most famous coaches.
Larson took over as St. Cloud State University's head men's hockey coach in April. In August, he took part in a celebrity golf tournament for the Herb Brooks Foundation in Blaine and met Kelly Brooks, Herb's daughter.
"She offered to give me a file of all his handwritten notes to go through," Larson said. "I was nervous. I thought, 'I hope my house doesn't burn down when I have this (file).'
"It seems like he was thinking in notes. It's been a really interesting look into who he was. He was so far ahead of the game with sports psychology. You can see why he was so successful. He was way ahead of everybody else."
Larson got permission to take photo copies of Brooks' notes before he returned them. He's been finding appropriate notes for the Huskies and posting them on a clipboard near the team's weekly schedule.
This week's schedule is a special one for Larson and the Huskies. St. Cloud State (6-0-2-1 NCHC, 14-2-2 overall) plays Minnesota Duluth (4-3-1-0, 11-5-2) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in an NCHC series at Amsoil Arena. It will be Larson's first series at Amsoil as an opposing coach after spending two stints with the Bulldogs as an assistant coach and Larson is a former UMD captain.
It is also a matchup between the defending NCHC regular season (Penrose Cup) champion Huskies, who are No. 2 in the PairWise Rankings, and the defending NCAA Division I champion Bulldogs, who are No. 6 in the PairWise.
His note this week from Brooks is not sentimental. Larson is drawn to the big picture outlook of Brooks' notes.
After receiving them, Larson said that he and his assistant coaches (Mike Gibbons and Nick Oliver) spent a lot of time going through the notes of the 1980 gold medal coach, who helped St. Cloud State transition to a Division I program.
"Gibby said something like, 'Herb is still coaching'" through the notes, Larson said. "Me and Gibby and Nick couldn't stop going through it ... It's been a really neat part of the whole process."
The process of 46-year-old Larson becoming a college head coach started in west Duluth.
A Denfeld Hunter
Larson is the oldest of three children and was born in Duluth. His mother, Beth Grindahl, is a retired elementary school teacher. His father, Bob, was a deputy chief of police for the city of Duluth before he died in 2011. Bob played forward for the Bulldogs for one season before playing hockey at Wisconsin-Superior and then becoming a police officer.
Growing up, Larson seemed to be surrounded by hockey.
"The neighbor behind me in west Duluth was a kid named Kevin Smalley, who played a few years for UMD," he said. "His dad was a big fishermen. They would have the whole UMD team over to their house for fish fries and they let me come over. So I got to hang out with Brett Hull and all those guys when I was just a kid. It was a dream."
Another neighbor was Tony Burns, who was Larson's best friend growing up and was his defensive partner when the two ended up playing for Duluth Denfeld.
"I was the same size when I was 15 as I am now," Larson said. "I ended up playing for the high school team as a freshman, which was really rare at the time. We went to the state tournament my freshman and sophomore years at Denfeld."
That was 1988 and 1989, when the tournament was still one class and it was the last of three state tournament appearances that Duluth Denfeld has made. Burns, who played at St. Cloud State and professionally, and Larson were good compliments on defense.
"(Brett) was a smart hockey player, did what was asked of him and was always willing to learn," said Bill Vukonich, who coached Denfeld to three state tournaments in five seasons. "Tony was offensive. Brett had a lot of offensive skills, but he stayed back a lot. We played pretty conservative.
"Brett was a leader, the type of kid any dad would like to have as a son."
Vukonich remembers Larson being able to play well in big games.
"When we needed him, he was there," Vukonich said. "The tougher the games were, the better he seemed to be."
Larson said he has taken many things from playing for Vukonich at Denfeld.
"We called him the Mike Ditka of high school hockey," Larson said, referring to the former NFL head coach. "He had the big mustache and kind of looked like Ditka a little bit," Larson said. "It was that blue collar, we better outwork the other team, team comes first mentality that we all grew up with.
"That was the culture of the neighborhood we grew up in. Nobody was more important than the team. When you look at St. Cloud or Duluth, that's kind of the mentality of our teams."
Becoming a Bulldog
At Denfeld, Larson said he was recruited by Notre Dame, Boston College, Minnesota and Wisconsin. But remember, he grew up seemingly immersed in the Bulldogs, who were coached by Mike Sertich at the time.
"As a squirt, the Bulldog players would come out to our practice once a year ... they would skate with you at practice," Larson said. "I was kind of a fanatic fan. A guy named Dan Fishback (who played for UMD from 1979-83) gave me his stick one time. He was a lefty and I was a righty. I re-curved the stick on the stove because I wanted to use his stick."
Larson was considering playing for Notre Dame before running into Sertich at a camp.
"I was at the Select 18 camp and Serty was coaching out there," he said of being recruited to UMD. "I just thought of the opportunity to stay home and play in front of my family and friends for the program. I grew up watching Norm Maciver and Brett Hull and Bill Watson and all these guys when they went to the Frozen Four. My dream of playing there won out."
Sertich, who coached the Bulldogs from 1982-2000, played for UMD with Brett's dad.
"I knew Brett from the time he was born," Sertich said. "I watched him all the way through youth hockey. He was a product of growing up in the Merritt (Park) Rink system. They had quality kids in youth hockey at the time and were very well-schooled in the basics.
"He was one of those kids who was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in. At a time when a lot of kids were experimenting with a lot of things, he stayed straight and did very, very well in school," Sertich said of Larson, who earned a degree in criminology. "He was a very gifted athlete. Recruiting was very different back then. He committed at a camp in Lake Placid."
Sertich's philosophy behind the bench has stuck with Larson.
"Serty pushed us to get better every day and that's the big thing I took away from him as a coach," Larson said. "I think Scott Sandelin is a lot the same way, where you try not to let players feel comfortable. Keep pushing them to get better, never let off the gas."
As a player, Larson said he was in and out of the lineup as a freshman at UMD, but was one of the team's top three defensemen in his last two seasons.
"I know what it's like to sit and I know what it's like to be counted on," he said. "That experience, hopefully, is something that I can use for players to help them with whatever they're going through."
Larson also experienced the highs and lows for a college team. UMD was 15-20-2 when he was a freshman and then 27-11-2 and won the WCHA regular season title his sophomore season. His senior season, the Bulldogs got off to a slow start.
"I was a captain and we started like 3-15," Larson said. "We ended up being .500 at the end of the season. That was a huge learning experience of trying to keep a team together, trying not to let it fall apart, working with leadership and the coaching staff ... I learned a ton that year."
From pros to coaching
Larson was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 11th round of the 1990 NHL Draft. His first two seasons after college, he played for the Madison Monsters, Louisville Riverfrogs and Utah Grizzlies.
Then from 1997-2001, he played for coach Steve Martinson with the San Diego Gulls in the West Coast Hockey League. Martinson is a former NHL player who played at St. Cloud State.
"Steve had this real gruff exterior, but he had some intangibles that makes you want to go through a wall for him," Larson said. "He wasn't the most detailed guy, but he had some quality that made the guys want to play hard for him ... You wanted to please him, wanted his approval. That's a pretty unique quality for a coach."
The last two seasons that Larson played in San Diego, he was a player/assistant coach for Martinson.
"The biggest thing when you're a player/coach is to lead by example," said Martinson, who is in his seventh season coaching the Allen Americans in the ECHL. "As a player, he was self-motivated and not a hard player to coach because he did not make a lot of mistakes."
Larson met his wife, Kelly, in San Diego and they got married in 2001. Oddly enough, Kelly is also a Denfeld graduate, but they met when she was attending San Diego State and Brett was playing for the Gulls.
"My sister knew this group of girls and asked me to show them around San Diego," Larson said.
After they got married, Larson planned on playing one season in Germany before returning and trying to get into coaching. He ended up playing six seasons in Europe before returning.
Martinson was one of the connections that Larson had to Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin, a former University of North Dakota defenseman. Larson was working a summer camp with Sandelin when UMD needed an assistant coach.
"S andelin was my roommate in Montreal and Brett called me and said there was an assistant coaching job opening with UMD," Martinson said. "Scott and I were friends and he asked me what Brett was like. It's always nice when assistant coaches can help with skills.
"You try to help the people that help you. We won a bunch of championships when Brett was there. "
And Larson said that his interview with Sandelin to become his assistant coach in 2008 was a pretty short one.
"I remember Scott telling me, 'I'd like to have an alum and I need to have a guy who works with the 'D' and you're pretty much the only guy who fits the bill ... so he gave me a shot," Larson said with a laugh. "That was pretty out of the box (thinking) at the time.
"I hadn't coached high school. I hadn't coached junior hockey. I hadn't done a lot of the things that guys do to prepare to get in."
But he's made the most of his opportunities since then.
Larson helped the Bulldogs win the 2011 national title, spent two years as the head coach of the Sioux City Musketeers in juniors in the United States Hockey League, then two seasons as an associate head coach at Ohio State before returning to the Bulldogs in 2015 and helping them to last season's national title.