The country's best player--the giant of college hockey--was
kneeling in the mouth of his own goal, the puck that had beaten
him lying dead at his feet. At the opposite end of the rink the
littlest man was dancing. Goliath loses again.
"I started playing in goal when I was nine, and even then I
heard people saying, 'He's too small, shoot high on him,'" said
5'7" junior goaltender Karl Goehring, who had made 21 saves to
help North Dakota to a 4-2 victory over Boston College and Hobey
Baker Award winner Mike Mottau in the NCAA championship game
last Saturday night in Providence. "It's something I've heard
ever since, and it's a big motivation for me."
To see this little goaltender and so many of his Lilliputian
teammates celebrating at BC's expense was hard for Eagles coach
Jerry York. Wasn't North Dakota supposed to be overloaded with
slow, big-boned, corn-fed farm boys? That was how York
remembered the Fighting Sioux from 1965, when as a sophomore
forward at BC he had scored three goals to beat them 4-3 in the
semifinals of the Frozen Four in Providence. The two schools
were being reunited in the same city, but the rules of
engagement had changed. North Dakota was now embodied not by
farm boys but by its itsy-bitsy goaltender, the former
valedictorian at Apple Valley (Minn.) High. "North Dakota was
always a big, strong, physical team, an intimidating type of
team," recalled York on Friday. "Now it seems like it has
evolved into a quick, up-tempo type of club."
Half of the Sioux's 20 players were shorter than 6 feet,
including 5'9", 160-pound forward Jeff Panzer, a finalist for
the Hobey Baker. "I think I weigh more than he does," said
Goehring in a slight exaggeration. "He has unbelievable speed."
North Dakota's emphasis on swift, deft skating has helped
produce two national titles in four years for the Sioux, giving
them seven NCAA titles in all, just two short of Michigan's
record. Credit coach Dean Blais for his willingness to break
with the school's traditional style. Blais remembers seemingly
endless nights of watching opponents skate circles around his
overgrown players, especially on the large, Olympic-sized rinks
that are found on some Western Collegiate Hockey Association
campuses. "I had to recruit players who could think and skate,"
says Blais, who had been coaching at high schools in Minnesota
when he was hired by North Dakota in 1994. "It took more than
two years before we were able to win on an Olympic-sized rink."
Blais reaffirmed his open-mindedness three years ago when he
recruited Goehring, who had been largely ignored by the big
Minnesota schools despite having led Apple Valley to the 1996
state championship. "We were kind of surprised Minnesota didn't
go harder after him," says Sioux recruiting coordinator Scott
Goehring paid immediate dividends. He was the WCHA's rookie of
the year as a freshman in 1997-98, the year after Blais's first
national championship. As a sophomore he was 10th nationally in
goals-against average (2.40) and 11th in save percentage (.914),
though he suffered a loss of confidence after allowing his team
to fall 3-1 in the West Regional to Boston College.
To his good fortune, Goehring was introduced last summer to
legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who invited him
to help teach for two weeks at Tretiak's goalie camps in Chicago
and Detroit Lakes, Minn. "Vladislav made me believe in myself
again," Goehring says. "I learned a lot of the old Soviet
training techniques. We worked a lot on balance. He would keep
saying, 'Work! Work hard!' Even if you were tired, he would keep
saying it, which was a big help because you were learning to
maintain your concentration."
Goehring had set school records for career wins (62) and league
shutouts (10) when on March 14 his head was accidentally slammed
against the ice after he collided with a teammate in practice.
The resulting concussion sidelined him for more than two weeks
as he waited for the headaches to vanish. "I could tell things
just weren't right," he says. "I knew that [Philadelphia Flyers
star] Eric Lindros was wondering whether he was going to play
again because of his concussions. That kind of thing weighs on
While Goehring was waiting for his head to clear, his understudy
and friend, Andy Kollar--another 5'7" goalie--was trying to take
his job. Kollar, a sophomore, led North Dakota to victories in
the WCHA playoffs and the NCAA West Regional final against
Niagara, allowing seven goals in three games. When Goehring
returned to practice a week before the Frozen Four, he wasn't
sure if he would reclaim his job. Blais didn't tell him he was
starting until five hours before the semifinal against defending
champion Maine last Friday afternoon.
Five minutes into that game Goehring found his team two men
down. "That was our plan: Test him early," Sandelin says with a
laugh. The Black Bears pelted the little man from a variety of
angles, knocking him flat on his back with the puck in his
glove. He went on to shut out Maine 2-0.
The rematch with Boston College was now in place. The Eagles
were led by defenseman Mottau and two other Hobey Baker
finalists, senior forward Jeff Farkas and junior forward Brian
Gionta. After falling behind in the fourth minute, BC recovered
to take a 2-1 lead in the second period. Four minutes after the
Eagles' go-ahead goal, Blais was frightened by the sight of
Goehring's helmet being torn off by the stick of Ales Dolinar as
the BC forward lost his footing in front of the net.
"I think it looked worse than it felt," Goehring, who sat on the
ice for a minute before getting up, said later. Nothing could
rattle the Sioux goalie. "I was disappointed by their second
goal, but it was almost a positive thing for us," said Goehring.
"I told myself, That's it. If they score another goal, it's
going to be a great one. My teammates rallied around me, and I
knew our speed was going to catch up with BC sooner or later."
With 17:17 left North Dakota tied the game on a slap shot by
6'3" senior wing Lee Goren, one of the few players remaining
from the old Bunyanesque days. The Sioux went ahead with 5:38 to
go when a shot by Goren rebounded off the stick of BC's 6'2"
goaltender, Scott Clemmensen, to North Dakota senior center
Jason Ulmer, who slapped it into the net. With less than a
minute to play, Goren, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player,
stole the puck near center ice and wristed his nation's-best
34th goal of the season into BC's empty net with Mottau pursuing
That play marked the sad conclusion to Mottau's brilliant
four-year career, in which he led the Eagles to three
consecutive Frozen Fours but failed to end BC's national-title
drought, which goes back to 1949. Eagles fans may be chagrined
by the future presence in Boston of Goren, who was drafted by
the Bruins in the third round in 1997 and is expected to begin
contract negotiations soon. But worst of all for the Eagles
faithful was the sight of the unwanted little goaltender dancing
away from his net in celebration, along with the realization
that their team had been beaten, in the worst of all Boston
College ironies, by none other than the Doug Flutie of hockey.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER
Half the Sioux's players were under 6 feet, including the 5'7"
Goehring and 5'9" Hobey Baker finalist Jeff Panzer.
An emphasis on swift, deft skating has brought North Dakota two
national titles in four years.