Herb Brooks manages the bench for the 1980 Olympic Team. Photo courtesy of the Herb Brooks Foundation
When Minnesota hockey legend Herb Brooks picked his 20 players to compete in the 1980 Winter Olympics, he didn’t select the most talented skaters he could find.
He didn’t look for flashy, and he didn’t look solely for skill. What he did look for were kids with heart, drive and a passion for the game. He wanted hockey players who fit seamlessly into a team and knew how to succeed in their role through work ethic.
Herb Brooks and his state championship winning St. Paul Johnson team. Photo courtesy of the Herb Brooks Foundation.
In 2003, Brooks passed away in a tragic car accident, leaving only memories of his prolific career. As a player, Brooks won a state championship with St. Paul Johnson in 1955, played four years at Minnesota and was a member of eight U.S. National and Olympic teams. Behind the bench, he won gold and silver in the Olympics, three NCAA championships with the Gophers and served as an NHL coach on four teams before becoming a director of player personnel for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After his passing, St. Paul's Lou Cotroneau approached the MSHSL with an idea to honor Brooks, and from there the Herb Brooks Award was born.
With the help of Brooks’ children Kelly and Dan -- and the rest of the newly formed Herb Brooks Foundation -- it was settled that the award would go to a player in the girls and boys state tournament from each class who best embodied a set of attributes that Brooks valued the most. A true love for hockey, a commitment to one’s school, team and community and a willingness to sacrifice topped the list of the selection committee.
“It’s a great award,” former Moorhead coach Dave Morinville said. “I worked with Herbie for many years in his hockey school, in fact I started working with him before the Olympics, before he won the gold medal that year. So you got to know a guy who really loved character, that was one of the things he was really big on, and he always believed in that until the day he died that character is gonna carry you to success more than just talent.
“It's not about the best player on the team, but about the unsung hero.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the award. As a part of the selection committee, Dan Brooks said he’s seen the award process develop over the years into a rewarding experience for everybody involved.
“It means a lot; it’s kind of surprising how this thing has morphed and grown into something kind of special,” Brooks said. “We didn’t really think where it would go and what it would mean to the kids. It’s really grown into something special for the winners, the past winners, and the coaches who nominate players.”
In honor of the benchmark, original Class 2A winner Molly McDonald from Lakeville handed out the award at the girls’ state tournament on Saturday, Feb. 23, and original winner Greg Flynn of Centennial will hand out the award at the boys’ tournament in March.
“I’m most proud of what these kids have accomplished in the past nine years,” Brooks said. “If you look at their achievements after they graduate from playing high school a lot of them have gone on to do some incredible things.
Do you believe in miracles?
The afternoon of Centennial’s first trip to the state championship in 2004, Greg Flynn and his teammates went to an Oakdale theater to catch a movie.
Since the game was at an awkward, mid-afternoon time, the Cougars had hours to kill, and a distraction from the looming pressure of the big game was necessary.
The field trip turned from stress release, to prophetic. The movie they were watching? “Miracle.”
Before that season, Centennial had never skated on hallowed state tournament ice.
Greg Flynn receives his Herb Brooks Award. Photo courtesy of the Herb Brooks Foundation.
Flynn was set on ending that streak. In Centennial’s youth ranks, Flynn and the Cougars won state championships at the Bantam A level before proceeding to high school. The skill was there, and after years of progress and player development, the potential that had been teased to carried Centennial into the tournament.
The Cougars had a 27-1-0 record and a defense that stood like a castle’s rampart, guarding goalie Greg Stuz with a near-impenetrable barricade. According to former Cougars coach Erik Aus, Centennial allowed just 33 goals the entire season.
Two games in the tournament and two shutouts later, the Cougars found themselves facing Moorhead, a traditional power in its ninth appearance. The Spuds were a handful that season, but Flynn was confident.
“They had a really really good team, but we had actually beaten them earlier in the year,” he said. “All the teams we played in the state tournament that year we beat – Holy Angels, then Wayzata and then Moorhead in the championship game.”
After a scoreless first period, the Cougars’ Mike Montgomery scored in the second. A 1-0 lead would be all Flynn and his vaunted defense needed.
“The championship game – oh boy – that was up and down,” he said. “We popped one and then it was just like ‘hold on for dear life.’ There’s nothing like it, there was nothing like that in my hockey career. It was unbelievable.”
Even Moorhead coach Dave Morinville was impressed at the Cougars’ blue line and Flynn, a team captain.
“It was just a defensive battle and Centennial was very good at shutting down teams from getting opportunities to score goals,” he said.
Centennial didn’t give up a single goal in the tournament, a feat that can be tied, but not topped. “I knew if they got ahead it was even gonna be tougher ... It was just an uphill battle the whole game after that.”
Once the jubilation ended, Flynn was given the Class 2A Herb Brooks Award for his leadership and hard work anchoring the Cougars back end. Watching ‘Herbie’ on the silver screen and being given the first award in his name in one day was a Hollywood ending of its own.
“It was just unbelievable – the series of events that led up to it were pretty pretty special,” Flynn said. “You say ‘did that really happen?’ And it did."
Service before self
Long before Flynn graduated from Centennial, Aus knew his standout player had his heart set on the United States Air Force Academy. Having seen his character in person on the Cougars, Aus had no reservations that Flynn would pass through the academy with flying colors.
On the ice, Flynn's menacing physicality coupled with soft hands and skill formed a deadly combo. He dictated play on both ends. But at a service academy where perseverance and work ethic off the ice is just as necessary, skills that translated from hockey to the military life were valuable.
“Greg is a great leader -- obviously in the Air Force Academy they’re going to have tremendous leaders, and he was a great leader,” Aus said. “He was one of the most disciplined young men that I’ve ever had a chance to work with.”
After a season playing for the Billings Bulls in the NAHL, Flynn made an immediate impact for the Falcons and coach Frank Serratore during his four-year career. Helping lead the squad to three NCAA appearances, Flynn notched 42 points (seven goals, 35 assists) in his senior season, making him the top scoring defenseman in the nation.
That year he was named the Atlantic Hockey Association’s best defensemen.
Flynn, never abandoning his roots, took time out to help with Centennial’s summer camps when his little brother Jake was still a Cougar.
Greg Flynn playing hockey at the United States Air Force Academy. Photo courtesy of www.goairforcefalcons.com
From college Flynn moved on to play a season in the AHL, where he skated for the Lowell Devils – the minor league affiliate for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils – all while working full time for the Air Force.
Instead of just the pressures of an elite hockey league, Flynn spent eight hours a day on base while practicing every day and playing in eleven games of the 2009-10 season. It may seem like a lot but it wasn’t anything new to Flynn.
“It was easier then when I was at the academy because I had to study at night,” he said with a laugh. “I was used to it, that schedule wasn’t abnormal to me. I was used to those kind of pressures being put on me and I wasn’t taking a test at the end of the day. All I had to do was just go to work, do my job and still get to play the game that I love.
“Everybody says ‘well how do you manage that?’ Well it’s like, 'You’re gonna do your dream, so how don’t I manage it?' ”
Flynn's dreams of the NHL ended after that year, but Flynn continued to serve his country through a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. As a contracting officer there, he was in charge of purchasing Air Force needs such as water, buildings, roads, and air strips. He constantly used life lessons that he said he learned through playing the game that he loved.
“A lot can be learned through the game of hockey,” he said. “The hard work and integrity piece. About doing what you’re supposed to be doing when nobody else is looking. You can learn that through the game of hockey and that’s where I learned to be a leader and I took those values with me as I headed off to my Air Force career.”
Now stationed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio, Flynn is in his first year as a coach of a local high school. The level of play might not be up to par with the Minnesota high school standard, but Flynn says instilling Herb Brooks values and giving back to the sport has been a rewarding experience.
“Greg is a great representation of himself, his family, and our community here at Centennial," Aus said. "He was just a fantastic leader, a fantastic role model for kids coming through our program here -- and still is a fantastic role mode.
“Every time they talk about the Herb Brooks award or the history of it, they’re gonna go back to the first one. And Greg is always going to be mentioned. I think it’s a huge deal.”
Dan Brooks agreed with Aus. He said it would be difficult to find a player who embodies the Herb Brooks Award values better than Flynn.
“It’s very unique to be able to play professional sports and serve in the military at the same time, and that’s what [Flynn] did,” Brooks said. “He’s an American hero. Not only do we want to honor Greg as the very first (Class AA) winner, but it’s a great way for us to recognize the United States military and the troops that are serving in Afghanistan.”
Molly McDonald of Lakeville High School is handed the Herb Brooks Award. Photo courtesy of the Herb Brooks Foundation.
Representing the girls at the state tournament on Saturday, Feb. 23, the first Class 2A winner Molly McDonald and Herb Brooks’ daughter Kelly Paradise handed out the award to Eden Prairie’s McKenzie Johnson for her efforts on the ice.
McDonald’s Lakeville team had a fantastic 21-7-2 season in 2004, losing to Eden Prairie in the third place game. She was presented the award by Minnesota Hockey legend Bill Butters. After high school, she had a four year career at Cornell University before graduating and moving on to Ohio State University to attain a degree in optometry. She scored four goals and added 20 assists as a defenseman who played in nearly every game for the Big Red. She is now a professional optometrist working back home in Minnesota.
“She’s just really motivated, she set goals and she’s a strong leader,” Paradise said of McDonald. “Kind of a goal orientated, motivated type of a person and successful ten years later. Well-spoken and she’s got that passion for what she loves.”
McDonald and Class 1A selectee Danny Blacker of Hibbing/Chisholm started the girls award as excellent role models and helped turn the honor into an incredibly big deal that Paradise equated to the ‘Hobey Baker’ of high school hockey. The Hobey Baker Award is given to the best collegiate hockey player in the nation.
“It shows that girls work just as hard as boys, they practice just as much as boys, they do everything they do and maybe they don’t get the fanbase but them to win the Herb Brooks Award puts their name on the map,” Paradise said. “Gives them some credit too for their hard work as well.”
Katie Dye of Hibbing/Chisholm received the Class 1A award on Saturday, making here the third Bluejacket to be selected and the first since Kayla Hagen in 2005.
Three Time Winners: Hermantown
Two Time Winners: Moorhead and Little Falls.
Public School Winners: 18
Private School Winners: 2
Back-to-Back: Coach Bruce Plante Hermantown teams won two straight awards with Karl Gilbert and Chad Huttel in 2006 and 2007.
Three time Winners: Hibbing/Chisholm.
Two Time Winners: Alexandria, Red Wing, Grand Rapids/Greenway.
Public School Winners: All 20.
Back-to-Back: Hibbing/Chisholm players won the first two Class 1A awards in 2004 and 2005, and Alexandria players took the Class 1A awards in 2007 and 2008.
Herb Brooks as a player for the U.S. Men's National Team. Photo courtesy of the Herb Brooks Foundation.
|2004||Pat Dynan||Orono||After spending time with the Bismarck Bobcats and the North Iowa Outlaws, Dynan spent three years at Gustavus Adolphus where he racked up 24 goals and 57 assists. He scored twice -- including the game winner in overtime -- to send Gustavus to its first NCAA Division II championship game.|
|2005||Jon Breuer||Albert Lea||Breuer played for Alexandria in the NAHL and still plays adult hockey. He is now an assistant coach at Albert Lea under the legendary Ron Nystrom.|
|2006||Karl Gilbert||Hermantown||Gilbert played college hockey at St. John's University and then played a year of pro hockey in England. He's currently an assistant coach at Hermantown.|
|2007||Chad Huttel||Hermantown||Huttel won an NCAA Championship with Minnesota-Duluth as a senior in 2011. Playing for the Sheffield Steelers in England in 2011-12, he notched 16 points.|
|2008||Bryce Ravndalen||Warroad||Ravndale spent two years at Alexandria in the NAHL and two years with Waterloo in the USHL where he logged heavy minutes. From there he played a year of hockey at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.|
|2009||Riley Hirsch||Little Falls||Hirsch is currently a senior playing baseball for Bemidji State. He hit .281 as a catcher last year for the Beavers.|
|2010||Casey Myhre||Virginia/Mt. Iron-Buhl||Myhre is attendingthe Mesabi Range Community and Technical College, coaching a Pee Wee B Team in Virginia and playing adult hockey.|
|2011||A.J. Reid||St. Thomas Academy||Reid went on to a year with the Fargo Force (USHL) and two years with the Austin Bruins (NAHL) where he tallied 54 points in 2012-13. He committed to play for West Point last February.|
|2012||Joey Hanowski||Little Falls||Hanowski is a freshman playing baseball at Bemidji State University.|
|2013||Chris Benson||Hermantown||Benson led Hermantown in points during the state tournament with three goals and three assists to cap off a marvelous 71 point season (32 goals, 39 assists). His clutch factor was out of control during the playoffs as picked up 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in just six games.|
|2004||Greg Flynn||Centennial||Had a magnificent four year career at Air Force before a season in the AHL. He then served sixth months in Afghanistan before returning to Wright-Patterson Air Force base where he works and coaches a local Ohio high school team.|
|2005||Mike Wallgren||Tartan||Played for four years at St. John's after two seasons with the North Iowa Outlaws in the NAHL. He had 22 goals and 66 assists in his college career.|
|2006||Matt Olson||Blaine||Olson played college hockey at St. Olaf College in Northfield following his time at Blaine.|
|2007||Joe Stejskal||Grand Rapids||Stejskal signed a two-year contract in 2011 to play for the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL. He's one step away from the Montreal Canadians of the NHL.|
|2008||Joe Phillippi||Hill-Murray||Goaltender spent three years in the NAHL and some time in the USHL before signing with St. Cloud State, where he is a redshirt freshman this year. He posted a 47-19-8 record during his junior hockey years.|
|2009||Trent Johnson||Moorhead||Johnson is a junior at Concordia College in Moorhead where he is a major contributor to both the hockey and football teams.|
|2010||Peter Sikich||Apple Valley||Post-high school, Sikich played for a year as a member of the Twin Cities Norther Lights, a team in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League.|
|2011||David Garen||White Bear Lake||Garen is a student at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.|
|2012||Michael Bitzer||Moorhead||Bitzer quickly worked his way from being a starting goaltender at Alexandria (NAHL) to the starting goaltender for the USHL's Lincoln Stars. His fabulous play has earned him a spot on the Bemidji State hockey team.|
|2013||Ryan Lundgren||Duluth East||Lundgren has been an integral part of the Greyhounds offense for years. His biggest playoff highlights came in a 3-0 win over C-E-C in the section playoffs where he scored a hat trick, and the Greyhounds third place victory in the state tournament where he tallied three assists.|
|2004||Danny Blacker||Hibbing/Chisholm||Blacker was a member of the Gustavus Adolphus hockey team for three years. She had 13 career points (two goals, 11 assists) over 84 career games.|
|2005||Kayla Hagen||Hibbing/Chisholm||Hagen played college hockey at Wisconsin where she had 21 career points (eight goals, 13 assists) and won three national championships in four title games.|
|2006||Brittany Dunkel||Warroad||Dunkel had a four year career with Wisconsin-Superior where the defenseman picked up 34 points (five goals, 29 assists). She is also an assistant coach with the Hermantown Girls U12-B Gold team.|
|2007||Abby Williams||Alexandria||Williams played a season at Minnesota State-Mankato before transferring to Bemidji State where she has posted 17 points in three years so far (four goals, 13 assists). She is currently a senior.|
|2008||Ashley Holmes||Alexandria||Holmes played four years of college hockey at North Dakota. As a senior she tallied career highs in points with seven (seven assists) while majoring in biology and pre-health.|
|2009||Rosie Alleva||Red Wing||A junior at Princeton University, the defenseman had 12 career points entering the 2012-13 season. She has been praised for her swift skating and good defense.|
|2010||Fallon Macemon||Hutchinson||Macemon is attending the University of St. Thomas University and not playing collegiality. In June of 2012 she was crowned Miss Hutchinson.|
|2011||Amanda Arbogast||Eveleth-Gilbert||Arbogast is a sophomore playing for St. Cloud State and majoring in marketing. After starting her career as an often healthy scratch as a freshman, she worked her way up to the first line and earned the Huskies' most improved player award.|
|2012||Cori Fairbanks||Red Wing||Fairbanks overcame adversity by recovering from a scary check from behind as a sophomore on Red Wing. She went on to make a recovery and used her tireless determination to win the award. She is currently in college but not playing hockey.|
|2013||Katie Dye||Hibbing/Chisholm||Dye capped an incredible year with a state tournament appearance for the Bluejackets. She had 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) this year in 30 games as a forward.|
|2004||Molly McDonald||Lakeville||McDonald had a productive career at Cornell University before attending the Ohio State University and earning her degree to become an optometrist back home in Minnesota.|
|2005||Kellye Nelson||Centennial||Nelson currently works in marketing in Perth, Australia after three years playing for Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She scored 51 points (27 points, 24 assists) for the Pointers.|
|2006||Chelsey Jones||Stillwater||After two years at Northeastern, the former Ms. Hockey Finalist transferred to the Gophers where she went to two Frozen Fours.|
|2008||Emily Erickson||Grand Rapids/Greenway||Erickson is a senior at Bemidji State where she leads the Beavers in scoring as a junior with 17 goals.|
|2009||Gina McDonald||Irondale||A junior forward, McDonald is finding time on the second line of the Harvard hockey team.|
|2010||Caitlin Morris||Edina||Morris is a junior at the University of Wisconsin and played goalie for the school's club team.|
|2011||Carolyn Draayer||Minnetonka||Draayer is playing for Gustavus Adolphus where she was the second-leading scoring freshman in the MIAC and has 18 points (12 goals, 6 assists) so far this season.|
|2012||Sydney Helmbrecht||Grand Rapids/Greenway||Helmbrecht went 7-10-2 in 19 games this year as a senior. She had a .917 save percentage and allowed just 2.06 goals per game.|
|2013||McKenzie Johnson||Eden Prairie||Johnson went 21-6-3 in her senior year with a spectacular 1.91 goals-against average. She allowed four goals in three state tournament games.|