The first thing college hockey fans gathered in Detroit had to do last week was to learn how to pronounce a five-letter name. "It's HERK-us," explained Tony Hrkac. Which rhymes with circus—or "crkac" in this instance—which is what Hrkac and his North Dakota Fighting Sioux teammates converted the NCAA Division I championships into as they skated to the school's third national title in eight years.
With All-America Hrkac in the lead, North Dakota chewed up Harvard 5-2 on Thursday night in Joe Louis Arena and then came back on Saturday night to beat defending champion Michigan State 5-3 before a record 17,644 fans in the title game. And this from a club that was picked before the season to finish no higher than third in the eight-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association, probably because Hrkac, a 20-year-old sophomore, had taken off last season to play on the Canadian Olympic Development Team.
"He's a joy to watch," said Harvard coach Bill Cleary. That evaluation came shortly after Hrkac helped defeat the Crimson with a goal and three dazzling assists in Thursday's semifinal.
As North Dakota set off for the Final Four, having won 38 of 46 games in the only NCAA Division I sport in which the school participates, Hrkac had 45 goals. Impressive as that number might be, it wasn't tops in the off-campus house Hrkac rents back in Grand Forks. One of his roommates, junior leftwinger Bob Joyce, the Fighting Sioux's captain and another All-America, led the nation with 50 goals this season. Still another roomie, junior rightwinger Steve Johnson, scored 25, which has to make their house on Dyke Avenue the highest-scoring temporary lodging spot in college hockey history.
Still, it is Hrkac's ability to set up scoring opportunities for his teammates that sets the 5'11", 165-pound center apart. When not bedeviling goalkeepers on his own, Hrkac skated and spun through defenders—in a manner reminiscent of his role model, Wayne Gretzky—to dish off 66 assists this season for a Division I record of 111 points. That broke by two the mark set by Bill Watson of Minnesota-Duluth in the 1984-85 season. (The Hrkac-Joyce-Johnson house finished with 263 total points, obviously another alltime college lodgings high.)
On Friday, Hrkac was given the Hobey Baker Award, hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy. Baker, the legendary Princeton star and World War I pilot who died in a plane crash just after the war, was so much of a gentleman that during his college career he was banished to the penalty box only two times. Hrkac is slightly more unruly. He has been whistled off 21 times in two seasons for a total of 48 minutes. "But no fights," said Hrkac, the St. Louis Blues No. 2 draft choice in 1984. "I don't think I'd know what to do in a fight. I'd probably lead with my right cheek."
But then, the Fighting Sioux are hardly an unruly bunch, although coach Gino Gasparini did say, "We can be surly when it is needed." After Harvard's loss, a Crimson partisan in the bar of the Hotel Pontchartrain said, "That North Dakota was the politest team Harvard played all year."
When things are going your way, there is no need to act primitive. Against Harvard, North Dakota went up 1-0 on Brent Bobyck's goal in the first period and then put the game away with a three-goal burst contributed by Joyce, Hrkac and Mickey Krampotich in the second period.
Trailing 4-0, Harvard finally got to North Dakota's second-team All-America goalkeeper Ed Belfour (37 saves) in the final period. The Crimson's Allen Bourbeau scored an unassisted goal at 3:02, but that was offset seven minutes later when Johnson took a slick pass from Hrkac, sped to the lip of the crease and blasted a point-blank rocket past goalkeeper Dickie McEvoy (29 saves).
"The trick here, and I've taken five teams to the national championships in nine years, is that you've got to get to the final game," Gasparini says. "I've only coached in one consolation game and I did not like it. I told that to the players before the Harvard game and I guess it impressed them."
Since taking over at North Dakota in 1978, Gasparini has seen more than 30 of his players sign NHL contracts, including the Rangers' James Patrick and the Blackhawks' Troy Murray. It is a total the Sioux coach views with mixed emotions. Unlike other college team-sport athletes, undergraduate hockey players do not have to plead hardship to turn pro. Consequently, very few campus superstars can resist accepting a pro salary much beyond their sophomore or junior years. Sixteen of the 28 players on North Dakota's current roster have been drafted by NHL teams, including all three first team All-Americas: Hrkac, Joyce (Boston) and defenseman Ian Kidd (Detroit, although Kidd is a free agent because he was overage when he was picked in the 1986 supplemental draft).
"It's not something that keeps me awake at night," Gasparini says. "There's nothing I can do about it. You can't stand in the way of a man's right to make a living. All we can do is talk with them and help them decide what is best for them. The thing is, whatever they decide, we want them to keep their options open. If they turn pro, we still want them to finish their education. Right now we have about eight players in the NHL who are still working toward their degrees. I think that shows that we have taught them something."
"Some guys do well in the pros," says Joyce, a solid B-average student in recreation administration, "and others fall by the wayside. There's no guarantee."
"Playing in the NHL is something I've always wanted," says Hrkac. "If it doesn't happen, well.... It would be a disappointment if I don't make it but I will just have to take it and go on from there."
Hrkac, who is from Thunder Bay, Ont., already has a pretty good idea of how he might fare in the NHL. While with Team Canada last year, he played in five exhibition games against NHL teams. He had three goals and three assists.
In the championship game on Saturday night, Michigan State, which had reached the final with a 5-3 victory over Minnesota (a team North Dakota had beaten in five of six games during the season), was in contention for only 15 minutes against the Fighting Sioux. In the next 1:55 of the first period, North Dakota exploded for three goals. The outcome of the game was essentially history with two periods still to play.
North Dakota's initial score came on a power play. From behind the net Joyce passed into the slot to Kidd, who drew Spartan goalie Bob Essensa to the left and then buried the puck in the right side of the net. A minute and a half later, with the teams at even strength again, defenseman Murray Baron fired a boomer from the top of the crease that sailed over Essensa's outstretched arm. The third goal came 18 seconds later when Hrkac pounced on a shot kicked out by Essensa and flipped the puck to Joyce for the score.
"There were all those Michigan Slate fans up in the stands," said Kidd. "After those three goals we kind of quieted them down and took them out of the game."
Michigan State scored twice (Tom Tilley and Kevin Miller) in the second period and got its last goal (from Kevin's brother, Kip) with 1:26 left in the third. But by then North Dakota had added scores from Malcolm Parks and Bobyck, and the Spartans had been unable to close to less than a two-goal deficit.
The Hrkac Crkac had ended the season with another boffo performance.
Joyce's first-period score capped a three-goal burst that sank Michigan State's hopes.
The Hobey Baker winner, here getting hammered, taught hockey fans how to say Hrkac.
Success has been grand for Gasparini, but he can't keep players in Grand Forks for long.