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 Sandelin.
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 your mind."
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.