Local hero lifts UMD to first title
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In the movie "About Schmidt," Jack Nicholson played an actuary. About to retire from his job, Warren Schmidt worried that he wouldn't be remembered for anything and questioned whether he made a difference to anyone during his life. In the movie's final scene, he wept with joy after he realized he truly did make a difference.
Kyle Schmidt is a senior at Minnesota Duluth majoring in actuarial science. Playing the last game of his college hockey career on Saturday night in the 2011 NCAA men's hockey championship, Schmidt scored an overtime goal to give the Bulldogs a 3-2 win over Michigan to secure UMD's first national title.
During and after the postgame celebration, both on-ice and in the dressing room, Schmidt wept with joy after he realized the enormity of his and his team's real-life accomplishment.
"It's definitely icing on the cake, I couldn't have drawn up a better way to end my college career," Schmidt said. "In August we set our goals that we wanted to win a regular-season title, a [WCHA] playoff title and then a national championship. When we didn't get the first two, we said this one trumps the other two and we were able to get it done and I couldn't be happier."
And neither could the long-suffering Bulldogs fans from the Northland.
Despite producing four Hobey Baker Memorial Award winners, not to mention Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull, UMD had never won a national championship. The 1984 team lost in quadruple overtime to Bowling Green and had never returned to an NCAA championship game until Saturday night.
"I don't know if I can put it into words," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "I am so extremely proud of these guys. I know every coach says that. But to do something that the school's never done is, I'd say that a couple of days ago, it would mean everything.
"And I think this is just for not just these players, it's for our alumni, program and city. I'm just so excited for these players to have this experience. They're the ones that need to talk. They're the ones that went out and did it. I'm kind of speechless."
Playing in their home state in front a partisan crowd of 19,222 at the Xcel Energy Center, just two hours down the road from Duluth, the Bulldogs needed extra hockey and a play from one of their local boys to bring home the title.
Schmidt, from the suburban Duluth town of Hermantown, cycled the puck in the right corner of Michigan's zone to linemate Travis Oleksuk. Oleksuk carried the puck behind the net and fired a backhand pass to Schmidt, who was all alone in front of Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick.
Schmidt buried the puck behind Hunwick before he could react at 3:22 of overtime for the championship winner, and then Schmidt skated all the way to the other end of the rink and fell to the ice before he was mobbed by his teammates.
"My linemates were working their butt off down low," Schmidt said of the game winner. "T.O. brought it around the net, he heard me yelling in the slot and fortunately I was in the right spot at the right time and it was more or less a gimme for me from his hard work. I'm just glad that I was able to bury it."
It was Schmidt's 11th goal of the season, second of this Frozen Four, third of this NCAA tournament and the 26th of what now will be his famous career up in Duluth. He was named to the Frozen Four All-Tournament team with teammates J.T. Brown (Most Outstanding Player) and Justin Faulk; along with Michigan's Hunwick, Jon Merrill and Ben Winnett.
With the win, the Bulldogs became the 18th school to win an NCAA title and the first new champion since Maine in 1993.
Sandelin arrived in Duluth in 2000 after serving as an assistant coach at his alma mater, North Dakota. In his 11 years on the shores of Lake Superior, he has experienced more losing seasons (six) than winning ones.
And this championship team experienced some ups and downs over the course of this season. The Bulldogs enjoyed a three-week run at No. 1 back in November, but they also experienced a 4-5-2 stretch from mid-February to mid-March.
"When I came here 11 years ago, I left a team that won a national championship, actually two in three years," Sandelin said. "So I left a pretty good position. But I was willing to accept that challenge, because I believed you could win here. And sometimes you gotta go through some rough patches, but we've had a great staff that's worked hard.
"That's why I'm so happy for them. I'm happy for the program. Yeah, I'm happy for me. I've had a design on the ring planned since I got here. So now I get to put it into reality."
Michigan coach Red Berenson, who was trying to win his third national title and first since 1998, was generous in his praise for what Duluth and Sandelin accomplished.
"He'll remember it the rest of his life," Berenson said. "He doesn't know it now. It takes a while to sink in. You're so focused on the game. The players, they're part of instant gratification. I think for coaches it takes a while for the whole thing to sink in.
"Good for Minnesota Duluth. It's been a long time coming for them, and they've got a good coaching staff and they've got a good team. They're a better team than we thought they were during the year. They kind of slipped under the radar all year, after they dropped out of No. 1. But they're the real deal."
And the face of the 2011 national champions will likely be a beaming and teary-eyed Kyle Schmidt, the local boy who helped to etch his hometown Bulldogs into the NCAA hockey history books.
It virtually guarantees that no one from the Twin Ports will ever forget about Duluth's version of "About Schmidt."
"I'm hoping my hockey career isn't over, but if it is, I was one fortunate individual and glad I could bring the national championship to Duluth," Schmidt said.
Making the real-life ending to this story better than anything Hollywood could have written.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.