Myers: In 1979, the Gophers broke my heart

Many Minnesotans live and die by the Gophers hockey team. But certainly not all of them. In 1979, when the Gophers dramatically held off North Dakota to win the NCAA title, it broke one particular 9-year-old's heart.
In March of 1979 North Dakota beat the Gophers in Minneapolis on the last day of the regular season to win the conference title, but the Gophers won the rematch three weeks later in Detroit to claim the program's third NCAA title. (University of Minnesota Athletics)

MINNEAPOLIS - Former Minnesota Gophers hockey coach Don Lucia may have unleashed a bit of overstatement via a quote he delivered shortly after his team claimed the 2002 NCAA title in St. Paul.

It was indeed a momentous occasion in the storied history of the Gophers program -- the school’s fourth NCAA title (they added a fifth the next year) and the first since 1979. In the postgame press conference, Lucia talked of what a huge moment it was for his employer, his team, and the state where hockey is the game for which we are most known.

“All of Minnesota is celebrating tonight,” Lucia said from the stage set up in the basement of Xcel Energy Center. From the back row of the press room, my smirk surely betrayed contrary thoughts.

“Not in East Grand Forks. Not in Duluth. No parade happening in St. Cloud. Not many partying in Mankato,” I thought. The Gophers can claim to be all of Minnesota’s team in football and basketball (although a few die-hard NDSU fans in Clay County surely feel differently).

But with four other Division I hockey programs in the state, and with Minnesota kids playing on all of them, as well as for nearby rivals like North Dakota and Wisconsin, there are many in the State of Hockey for whom that slanty-sided ‘M’ is a symbol of derision.

Goaltender Bob Iwabuchi came on in relief of starter Bill Stankoven in the second period of the 1979 NCAA title game and allowed only Neal Broten's famed chip shot goal in the final 40 minutes. (North Dakota Athletics)
The U of M will honor that 1979 title team this weekend, and the Gophers' 4-3 win over arch-rival North Dakota on March 24 of that year did produce celebration and delight among many of the hockey fans from Littlefork to Luverne, and everywhere in between. But for a 9-year-old boy watching the game with his father on a living room TV in Warroad, Neal Broten’s dramatic third-period chip shot over Fighting Sioux goalie Bob Iwabuchi was a heartbreaker, and produced a child’s life lesson that you don’t always get what you want, no matter how much you hope and pray for it.

Two kids raised just down the street from me in our small town on the shore of Lake of the Woods -- Dave Christian and Conway Marvin -- played for the Fighting Sioux and first-year coach Gino Gasparini that season. They were fun to watch. They won consistently. They’d adopted “Sesame Street” star Kermit the Frog as their unofficial mascot, with signs and T-shirts bearing the slogan “Kermit’s Luck Guides Our Puck” omnipresent in the northern Red River Valley. And in a town 375 miles from the Twin Cities, but just 135 miles from Grand Forks, the Sioux were the natural rooting interest for this particular fourth-grader.

The loyalties were more divided just 22 miles west of us. There were three former Roseau Rams on the North Dakota roster, but Broten, in his first year of college hockey with the Gophers, was the budding star and it was clear for all to see.

In his second and final season of college hockey, Warroad native Dave Christian (13) had 46 points in 40 games for North Dakota rookie head coach Gino Gasparini. (North Dakota Athletics)
On March 3, Christian scored twice, including a slap shot into an empty net, as the Sioux beat Minnesota 4-2 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, claiming the WCHA title. It was an amazing feat for Gasparini, who in one season had taken the team from a decade of malaise to its first conference crown since 1968. Three weeks later, when the Gophers and Sioux met at the Olympia in Detroit to decide the NCAA champ, North Dakota’s path to the top seemed preordained.

When it was all over, and the Gophers circled the ice with the championship trophy, there were tears and disbelief. My father half-joked about a $100 bet he’d made with a friend who was a Minnesota alum. He offered a hug. But the devastation in this 9-year-old mind was real. Yes, I was a Minnesotan. Yes, the Gophers represented my state. And no, they weren’t supposed to do this.

A year later, it had all changed. The Sioux won the NCAA title, but only after Christian and a handful of those Gophers -- Broten among them -- captured the hearts of not just Minnesota and North Dakota, but the entire nation, winning gold in Lake Placid.

By December 1984, when I attended my first in-person college hockey game (Minnesota at North Dakota, of course), the Sioux had become the national powerhouse, and the Gophers -- my state’s Gophers -- were the plucky underdogs. I cheered hard for the maroon and gold like the Minnesotan I am. The Gophers lost that night.

Today they’re my job, covered objectively with no school ties. I went to Minnesota Duluth 30 years ago, and rooted hard against both the Gophers and Sioux as a student. I’ll surely smile at the sight of heroes of 1979 like Broten, Mike Ramsey, Steve Christoff and Bill Baker when they gather in Minneapolis this weekend. But I’ll also always remember those tears of a 9-year-old, and how watching one of the Minnesota program’s greatest victories led to heartbreak.

Although, through the cracks of that broken heart, a life-long love of college hockey entered in.