Friday, April 22, 2011

Head Coach Candidate: Scott Sandelin

Fourteenth in a series taking uninformed, uneducated guesses at the candidates to become the first head coach of Penn State's NCAA men's team. Previously: Icers coach Scott Balboni, Denver coach George Gwozdecky, Pittsburgh Penguins assistant Tony Granato, Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley, Wisconsin women's coach Mark Johnson, Nebraska-Omaha hockey czar and former coach Mike Kemp, Ottawa Senators assistant Greg Carvel, Minnesota coach Don Lucia, Miami assistant Brent Brekke, Notre Dame assistant Paul Pooley, Cornell assistant Casey Jones, Boston College assistant Mike Cavanaugh, Princeton coach Guy Gadowsky.

Right off the top, I want to thank Penn State hockey booster and former coach Mark Horgas for his assistance in piecing things together, both for this post and with the coaching search generally. Anything I say in this post that sounds like good information and doesn't have a link probably goes back to him in one way or another. The guy is a tremendous asset to Penn State and Pennsylvania hockey, and knows everyone involved in both. If you're not following him on Twitter (@MarkHorgas), you're missing out.

This post is probably going to look slightly different than others in the series, for the simple reason that this isn't me guessing a name (or seeing one printed in some random place), it's me taking an ironclad known candidate, one widely believed to be the leader for the job, and exploring the situation a little. I'll do a quicker-than-normal rundown of the biographical stuff (or at least I'll try, I know brevity is not my strong suit), then get into the fun stuff that's probably the real reason you want to read posts like this one. So without further ado, here's the playing career:

Season   Team                   Lge    GP    G    A  Pts  PIM
1982-83  U. of North Dakota     WCHA   30    1    6    7   10
1983-84  U. of North Dakota     WCHA   41    4   23   27   24
1984-85  U. of North Dakota     WCHA   38    4   17   21   30
1985-86  U. of North Dakota     WCHA   40    7   31   38   38

1985-86  Sherbrooke Canadiens   AHL     6    0    2    2    2
1986-87  Sherbrooke Canadiens   AHL    74    7   22   29   35 
1986-87  Montreal Canadiens     NHL     1    0    0    0    0 
1987-88  Sherbrooke Canadiens   AHL    58    8   14   22   35
1987-88  Montreal Canadiens     NHL     8    0    1    1    2
1988-89  Sherbrooke Canadiens   AHL    12    0    9    9    8
1988-89  Hershey Bears          AHL    39    6    9   15   38
1989-90  Hershey Bears          AHL    70    4   27   31   38
1990-91  Hershey Bears          AHL    39    3   10   13   21
1990-91  Philadelphia Flyers    NHL    15    0    3    3    0
1991-92  Kalamazoo Wings        IHL    49    3   18   21   32
1991-92  Minnesota North Stars  NHL     1    0    0    0    0

His senior year at North Dakota was nothing short of a massive awards haul: Hobey Baker finalist, first-team All-WCHA, second-team All-American, team MVP and captain. Unfortunately for Sandelin, North Dakota won national championships the year before he showed up and the year after he left, but not during his time in Grand Forks. He did make one trip to the Frozen Four, but then this happened (Sandelin is No. 5 for UND):

A pretty substantial professional playing career followed for the defenseman from Hibbing, MN, spent entirely in the NHL and AAA-level minor leagues. That three-season run with Hershey towards the end of his career is particularly significant, because...
Sandelin's wife, Wendy, is from the Central Pennsylvania area and a [1988] Penn State [nursing] graduate. The two met while he was playing with Hershey, then the AHL affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers.
After a chronic back injury forced the end of his playing career, Sandelin served as GM and coach of the Fargo-Moorhead Express of the American Hockey Association in 1992-1993, a league that didn't even survive long enough to declare its first champion. But at least the Express were in first place at the time, so give Sandelin credit for winning while probably worrying whether he'd be paid. The next season he coached juniors, also in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

From there, six years (1994-2000) were spent assisting Dean Blais (now Nebraska-Omaha's coach) at North Dakota, where he'd make up for the missing out on the NCAA championship thing. Twice. What's pretty impressive about that run is that in its entire storied hockey history, the Sioux have only suffered three consecutive losing seasons twice. Blais and Sandelin arrived in town following the latter of those stretches, and by year three, 1996-1997, they were national champions. And in Sandelin's last four seasons there, they won either the MacNaughton Cup (WCHA regular season title), the Broadmoor Trophy (WCHA tournament championship) or both each season, as well as another national title in 2000.

Not surprisingly, Minnesota-Duluth, which had fallen off significantly since the time of Brett Hull, took a shot on the guy who had played a huge role in most areas of the Sioux program, and head coach of the Bulldogs has been Sandelin's job title for the last 11 years of his life. Those seasons divide pretty neatly into three stages.

In each of the first four, Duluth's record improved, culminating with a 28-13-4 record in 2003-2004, which included a Spencer Penrose Award (coach of the year) for Sandelin, a Hobey Baker Award for right wing Junior Lessard and a Frozen Four run.

Next up were four consecutive losing seasons, the only major blemish on Sandelin's resume. Things got kind of rough up Duluth way, even to the point where firing Sandelin was considered a viable option (in the comments, not the original post), although it seems like he had supporters throughout as well.

Finally, there's a reload starting with 2008-2009 and a Broadmoor Trophy that year and including players like Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine (who formed one of the best lines in college hockey) and Pittsburgh-native goalie Kenny Reiter. We all know how that second reload ended:

Two more things you need to know about Sandelin: 1. He was just named as one of Blais' Team USA assistants for the World Junior Championships this coming December and January, a tremendous honor for any college hockey coach, and 2. He's entering the final year of his contract with UM-D and is currently negotiating an extension.
Sandelin, 46, has one year remaining on a two-year UMD contract. He finished the 2010-11 season 26-10-6 in winning the Division I title April 9. He’s 192-200-52 in 11 seasons at UMD.

He talked about a UMD contract extension last Friday with athletic director Bob Nielson, and is to meet again Tuesday.

“We’ll continue to talk and see where that goes,” Sandelin said of discussions with Nielson.

“Our desire is for Scott to be our hockey coach for a long time,” said Nielson. “He’s done a great job and we are working toward a new contract, but I also know that successful coaches have opportunities to talk to other schools and explore other possibilities. I’ve never faulted a coach for doing that.”
What adds some intrigue is that Sandelin's interview at Penn State took place yesterday, two days after the meeting with the Duluth brass. Undoubtedly, Sandelin came to Happy Valley armed with what he was being offered at UM-D, and so far, there's no indication whatsoever that Joe Battista and company blinked.

So how does Penn State go from a tight budget to possibly hiring away a guy who just won a national championship and is leveraging competing offers against each other? Well, look no further than Penn State's wrestling program, Cael Sanderson and Ira Lubert for that answer.

Of course, when it comes to Penn State hockey and deep-pocketed boosters, Terry Pegula heads the list. And if Pegula likes the guy Battista wants to hire, I think it's obvious that he'll help pay the difference between the budget and the demand - not to mention any of the other accommodations that might be required to draw a guy like Sandelin away from the upper midwest for the first time in his coaching career. Even beyond the money, people from all around the hockey world have taken note of what's been going on in Buffalo since Pegula took the reins. The franchise has been reborn in its 40th year, and has almost instantly gone from also-ran to chic destination. People, even national championship-winning coaches, want to be associated with a guy who makes things like that happen. Some people even go so far as to name blogs after them.

One of the possible accommodations I alluded to? UM-D assistant Derek Plante is a former Sabre. The idea that he might be part of the Sandelin package probably didn't hurt when selling the plan to Pegula.

Is Scott Sandelin the Cael Sanderson of Penn State hockey? If he's ultimately the guy, I certainly hope so. While a national championship in year two might be asking a little much, getting there eventually is the goal. And Sandelin's been there already. Three times. 

If you squint, you can almost picture this being the Pegula Ice Arena - and quicker than some would have you believe.

Horgas believes that the hire will be made before the American Hockey Coaches Association convention, which begins on April 28th, better known at this point as "next Thursday." Based on the agenda, and the fact that meetings start early that day (with a couple things the evening before as well), Wednesday seems like a travel day to me. Not to say that a flight to Florida and a press conference can't be done in the same day, but it seems a little less likely.

In other words, I should probably acknowledge that this post possibly concludes this series. If Horgas is right, by next Wednesday we'll either have a head coach, or the noise about an announcement will render another post pointless.

If this in fact it, I hope that you've found these posts as informative as I have - researching them has provided me with a great opportunity to learn a lot, not just about some of the best coaches out there, but also about some of the programs that make up the great sport of college hockey. It's been a great run, and it's made me even more excited to be a part of the NCAA picture in 2012.


  1. While it's nice of you to link to my site, you should probably not link to my blog as a site advocating firing Sandelin when at no time have I expressed that sentiment.

  2. My apologies - my intent was to link to the comment on your post that suggested firing him was one of three ways to turn things around, not to your post directly. I'll edit to clarify that.