BUFFALO – The NHL really likes to tout its green initiatives because it makes the league look like a respectable corporate citizen. That devotion to the environment, though, is no more prominent than in its propensity for recycling coaches. Once you’re in with the NHL coaching fraternity, you tend to stay in.
Meanwhile, very good coaches such as Scott Sandelin with the University of Minnesota-Duluth continue to do outstanding work under the NHL’s nose without getting much of an invite to dance. Sandelin’s UMD Bulldogs will play for a national championship for the third straight year after their 4-1 win over Providence in the Frozen Four semifinal Thursday night. If they win Saturday night, it will be their second straight championship and a crowning achievement for Sandelin, who has accomplished just about everything possible in college hockey.
Sandelin has been coaching or an assistant at one level or another for the past 27 years since his minor league career ended in 1992. He’s won two national championships as a head coach, two as an assistant at North Dakota and has been both a head coach and an assistant coach with the U.S. national junior team. He knows the drill and he obviously knows how to win.
So why has Sandelin not been scooped up by an NHL team? Well, perhaps Jim Montgomery going from Denver to the Dallas Stars will help him, but with as many as eight coaching vacancies in the NHL this summer, you’d have to think this would be Sandelin’s best chance to land a job. Not that he’s thinking of any of that at the moment.
“At this minute right now, all I’m worried about is we’re playing on Saturday,” Sandelin said after his team’s win in the semifinal. “You know what? I’ve got a great job and someday if (the NHL) ever pops up, I’ll look it for sure. But right now I’m in a great situation. I have a great group of players and we’re playing for a national championship on Saturday.”
Justin Richards, a sophomore center who scored for the Bulldogs in the semifinal, knows a good coach when he sees one. His father, Todd, has been a head coach with the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets and is currently an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Richards said he has no doubt Sandelin would be a success at the next level.
“Everything ‘Sandy’ does is for the team and for every guy in that (dressing) room,” Richards said. “It’s for the program and everything he does is for us. He loves us and that’s why he’s such a good coach, because everyone wants to play for him. I mean, I think that, yeah, he for sure could have potential to make it.”
“I kind of like what I’m doing here,” Sandelin said when he heard Richards’ comments. “This is fun.”
It’s just not near as lucrative as coaching in the NHL. Sandelin has job security to be sure, but in his current contract with the school, his salary tops out at $350,000. So why is it that David Quinn, who did not win a national championship in his six-year tenure with Boston University, can command an NHL salary of $2.4 million a year on a five-year deal? It certainly makes you wonder. Quinn will earn a total of $12 million on that deal, a sum that would take Sandelin more than 34 years to earn on his present salary.
Sandelin, meanwhile, has built the hockey program at the relatively small northern Minnesota school into a national powerhouse, all the while working his way up among the pantheon of college coaches. He also won a national title in 2011, making him the ninth head coach in history to guide his team to four national championship games – a group that includes former NHL coaches and Hall of Famers Herb Brooks and Bob Johnson and college coaching legends Jack Parker and Jerry York.
“He definitely makes you want to play for him,” said St. Louis Blues prospect and Bulldogs defenseman Scott Perunovich. “No doubt he would be successful wherever he went. He knows how to get everything from every player and you want to run through a wall through that guy.”
Perhaps Sandelin will spend the rest of his coaching career having young men run through walls for him. But maybe, just maybe, if a GM can look beyond his recycling bin, he might find a coach with a winning pedigree and an ability to extract the most out of his personnel. Either way, Sandelin isn’t going to sit there and wait for a call because he’ll be too busy winning championships.