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Champions: That Bulldog Mentality

Sandelin is a disciple of Pat Burns and uses that honest, forthright approach at Minnesota-Duluth.

More than three decades ago, Scott Sandelin was a second-round pick out of North Dakota who, like anyone else in his situation, was desperate to play in the NHL. He thought he had a future there, too, especially after 1987-88 when he played for the AHL’s Sherbrooke Canadiens under up-and-coming coach Pat Burns. The NHL never did work out. Sandelin played just 25 games in the best league in the world during a nine-year career that was cut short by injuries.

But the lessons he learned from the Hall of Fame coach never faded, even if the NHL dream did. “I appreciated his honesty – I appreciated knowing where you stood,” said Sandelin, now 54. “You wanted to play hard for him. Unfortunately, when he went to Montreal, he wasn’t making that decision. I begged, but…”

But after 19 years and three NCAA titles with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, the most recent of which came this year when his team gave up one goal in two games in a convincing Frozen Four run, Sandelin is not begging anymore.

He doesn’t yearn for the NHL the way he once did. In fact, he thinks about it a lot less than other people do. And when you talk to his players about him, a lot of the same things he said about Burns come out. Kids want to play for him because they know exactly where they stand and what is expected of them. It’s that kind of accountability that led to a dominant performance in Buffalo – a 4-1 win over Providence in the semifinal, then a 3-0 victory over UMass in the final – in which the Bulldogs gave up just 47 shots in two games.

For the Bulldogs, it was their second straight Frozen Four victory and third consecutive appearance in the championship game. For Sandelin, it was his third NCAA title with Minnesota-Duluth. Quite an accomplishment for the Bulldogs and Sandelin, both of whom operate in the shadow of the University of Minnesota. There has been some NHL interest in Sandelin, who was tabbed not long after the Frozen Four to coach the U.S. entry in the 2020 World Junior Championship. But all indications are he’ll stay at Minnesota-Duluth and continue to build championship teams that smother their opponents. “Everything starts with our coaching staff because it takes every guy buying into that system,” said captain Parker MacKay, who had a goal and an assist in the final and signed an AHL deal with the Texas Stars. “(Sandelin) is so passionate. You want to follow that. He loves this program, and you can tell by the things he does for this program and the time he puts in. You want to follow him and put that time in as well.”

Playing for Sandelin requires players to check their egos. And it’s fairly easy to do because Sandelin does it himself. The result is a team where St. Louis Blues defense prospect Scott Perunovich was the only player who finished near the point-per-game area code. In fact, the powerhouse Bulldog teams of the past three years have produced only one player – Los Angeles winger Alex Iafallo – who has averaged more than a point per game. But there’s not a big need for points when you’re as dominant defensively as the Bulldogs have been. In the 2019 Frozen Four, there was not one moment in either game where Minnesota-Duluth wasn’t in complete control or where the result was in peril. Cale Makar of UMass, who picked up the Hobey Baker Award the day before the final and was one of the NCAA’s leading scorers, was neutralized in the title game.

The New York Rangers considered Sandelin before hiring David Quinn out of Boston College, and Sandelin interviewed with the Anaheim Ducks this spring. But if the NHL ship has sailed, he will have no problem reconciling that. He loves where he lives and has a stable income of about $300,000. Still, it would take Sandelin 40 years to earn the $12 million Quinn, who did not win a national title, will earn with in his five-year NHL deal. “I have no doubt he would be successful in the NHL,” Perunovich said. “Anywhere he went he would be successful, because he knows how to get everything out of a player. You want to run through a wall for that guy.”

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