Q&A with Minnesota-Duluth and Team USA U20 head coach Scott Sandelin

By DJ Powers

In June, the fifth year head of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs Scott Sandelin was named the head coach of the United States team that will compete at the upcoming U-20 World Junior Championships in Grand Forks and Thief River Falls. After an excellent season behind the Bulldogs bench last season that culminated in a trip to the Frozen Four, Sandelin was named the WCHA Coach of the Year. He was also the recipient of the Spencer Penrose Award, which given annually for the National Coach of the Year. Prior to his arrival at Minnesota-Duluth, he served as an assistant coach under Dean Blais at the University of North Dakota from 1997-98 to 1999-2000. In addition to coaching at North Dakota, he also played for the Fighting Sioux from 1982-86. In his senior season in 1985-86, he was named one of the ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. That same year, he captained the Fighting Sioux, earning an All-WCHA first team selection, an All-American second team selection and was named the Fighting Sioux’s Most Valuable Player.

Sandelin was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1982 (40th overall) and went on to play several years in the NHL with the Canadiens as well as the Philadelphia Flyers and the Minnesota North Stars. His international playing experience includes a stint with Team USA in the 1984 IIHF World Junior Championships.

On Wednesday (the day after the final roster for Team USA was announced), Coach Sandelin took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Hockey’s Future about his Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs as well as give his insights on Team USA and the upcoming World Junior Championships.

HF: Let’s begin with your current team. The Bulldogs enjoyed an outstanding season last year that included a trip to the Frozen Four. Unfortunately, the Denver Pioneers ended your team’s season. To come that close to winning it all, has that been a motivator for the team to work that much harder to win the National Championship coming into this season?
SS: Well, I think we certainly looked at it that way. Maybe we took some things for granted going into the year. We were picked to win our league (WCHA) and maybe we thought that we were a better team than we really are. We’ve had some struggles here in the last month and a half after a good start. Maybe starting off the way we did was good, but it was also bad because it gave us some higher expectations. I think every team deals with expectations a little differently. We’ve gotten away from doing the things game in and game out to win. We need to be a real competitive, in-your-face type of team. We play a very aggressive style but lately we’ve become a little bit of a perimeter team. I think we’re getting back to basics on how we need to play. It may not always result in wins but it certainly gives us a chance to win every game.

HF: You lost two players in Junior Lessard (DAL) and Beau Geisler, who were crucial players to the success of the team last season. How have you been able to get the team to adjust to the absence of these players?
SS: Obviously when you lose a player like Junior, who was the Hobey Baker winner and scored 32 goals for us, it’s hard to replace that type of player. Going into this year, we felt that we had some players that were capable of stepping up and giving more contributions offensively. That hasn’t happened in the early part of the year. We’ve looked to a few guys to do that, to maybe score 10 or 15 goals. Our team has always had success as a team and obviously when you take out those two guys that were kind of calming presences on and off the ice, you’ll be looking for a similar type of player and we haven’t found him yet. However, we do have good leadership. You really find out how much you miss them throughout the year, when the seniors and those caliber of hockey players are gone.

HF: Evan Schwabe and Neil Petruic (OTT) are two of your 11 seniors this season. Do you see them as the players to fill the roles that Lessard and Geisler have left behind?
SS: Evan is more of a playmaker. Junior was a goal scorer. Evan did play with Junior last season and had an outstanding year. This year’s he’s our captain and our leading scorer. Evan’s been a player that has certainly fulfilled what our expectations were of how he needed to play. I think Neil on the blueline has done that too. He’s battled some injuries lately. I know that Neil is likely going to be out until after Christmas. Unfortunately, he probably hasn’t been where he wants to be. Tim Hambly is another one of our senior defensemen. I look to those guys as leaders on the blueline. Tim was also out with an injury for a while and now he’s back. Neil was out, came back and now he’s out again. So with the injuries we really haven’t had both guys in the lineup consistently in the first half.

HF: If I recall correctly, Neil was out with an ankle injury earlier.
SS: Yes.

HF: Is that the same injury he’s out with now?
SS: Actually it’s the other ankle now (laughs).

HF: Two freshmen that have been playing very well but did not play last weekend versus Wisconsin were Matt McKnight (DAL) and Mike Curry (LA). What can you tell me about both of them?
SS: Matt is still out with an injury. Mike was actually on the trip but was sick so he didn’t play. Both of those players have had very good first halves for freshmen. We’ve put them in some situations and they’ve had success. I think the biggest battle with freshmen is consistency. Some come in and are very consistent, while others are up and down. I think the trend with freshmen is to see a little bit more up and down play until maybe the second half of the season where they get more games under their belts. I think Matt has been very consistent. I think Mike has had some ups and downs, but yet you kind of expect that. Those two guys certainly have played very well for us and will continue to improve and play well as they play more games.

HF: What type of role does each player have on the team?
SS: They’ve both played roles on our power play. Matt is probably more of a two-way player. He’s killed penalties and he’s very good on faceoffs. He’s played a bit more of a role on our special teams as well as five-on-five. Mike is a little bit more of a goal scorer than Matt. Matt is more of a playmaker. They’re both six-feet plus and have a lot of skill and ability. They’re just finding their way at this level and adjusting to the pace. With the competitiveness of every game, both of them have done a very good job. The more they play and the more confidence they get, they’ll become bigger factors and contributors for us the rest of the year.

HF: Two freshmen defensemen that I had a chance to see last weekend were Travis Gawryletz (PHI) and Jay Rosehill (TB). They seem to be two different types of players. Travis struck me as being the more offensive-minded of the two, while Jay looks to be the more rugged/tougher of the two. Would you say that is a fairly good assessment of each player?
SS: Yes, I would. Jay is obviously a big, strong, physical guy. I think he’s a real honest, physical player. He’s going to hit you. He’s not going to whack, chop or cross-check you. He’ll put a shoulder in and make you pay a price, whether it’s down around the wall or around the net. Travis has some of that ability as far as the physical part but not as much as Jay. We’ve used Travis in some power play situations as well. He has a more offensive dynamic to his game. Because of our (defensive) injuries, Jay and Travis have played a lot of minutes. In the last three weeks, I’ve seen those two really step up, gain some confidence and play very well for us. That’s not easy to do as a freshman defenseman, certainly not in our league. With the minutes that they’ve already played, I think we will benefit from that as a team because these guys have matured a little bit and hopefully will continue to do so for the rest of the year.

HF: Last season, the Bulldogs were one of the best offensive teams in the nation, including possessing an excellent power play. This season, the offensive production has dipped but special teams seem to be the bigger problem right now. Do you feel that that is one of the biggest contributors to the Bulldogs’ current struggles?
SS: Yes, I think that really has been. If you look at the games that we’ve won and lost, those have played a major role. Year in and year out, they’re the difference between winning and losing games. Our power play started out the year around 25 percent and recently those numbers have dipped. We just haven’t been able to get the puck to the net. Part of the reason is we’ve run into some very good goaltending at the other end. To me, goaltending can be your best penalty killer. Our penalty killing was good early on, but lately it’s been just average. We’re working hard on it, but again a goalie can make your penalty-killing unit look great. Our goaltending hasn’t been where it was at the beginning of the year. That’s not to (completely) blame them, but certainly you need that save here and there. I think part of it too is getting a little bit of luck and some bounces. We’re getting our chances but we’re trying to impress upon our guys, at least on the power play, to get the puck to the net more and not to get too fancy. As far as the penalty killing is concerned, the team has to work together and not run around and hopefully get that save.

HF: Last weekend versus Wisconsin, you played Josh Johnson on Friday and Isaac Reichmuth on Saturday. Isaac was your starter last season. Do you plan on naming him your starter again or do you think that Josh, if he’s playing better, will take over the starting goaltending job?
SS: Well if you look at the pure numbers, Josh is the better goalie right now. We feel that we have two goalies that are capable of getting the job done. Right now though, it seems like neither one of them wants to take role (chuckles), neither has emerged. There might come a point where we just say ‘ok, we’re just going to stay with one for more than a game.’ They both have had good moments and average moments. I think they’re both better than that. Every coach will tell that goaltending can make your team look very good. We do have two very good goaltenders that have the capability to get the job done. Right now, we’re alternating them until we make a decision to go with one for a while and see how that goes. Otherwise, we continue to rotate them.

HF: In the last 10 games, the Bulldogs have gone 2-7-1. One word that has been used to describe the team’s current struggles is “inconsistency”. Would you say that that’s a good description?
SS: Absolutely. I think in the last three games, we’ve been more consistent in a lot of areas, but I always look at performance as a coach. I think we’ve played better in the last three games too. If we continue to do that, we’ll certainly put ourselves in a position to win every game. I’m happy that we’ve played better defensively. Maybe we haven’t been as great offensively, but if you’re not scoring, you’ve got to do one thing well and that’s play well defensively. We look like a real good team at times and a real average team at other times. As a coach that concerns me, but we’re trying to build off of what we’ve done in the last few games, take positives out of that and hopefully we’ll become a more consistent team. In the WCHA, if you’re not consistent, one period can kill you. We’ve been a team that hasn’t gotten the lead very much either. I think we’ve only had the lead in four of the 16 games we’ve played and it’s tough to have to play catch-up in almost every game. Having played catch-up in so many games, it tends to make the guys press a little bit more where they may play a little bit differently than if we had the lead. It’s one of those things where we’ve got to find a way to have better starts to our games and learn to play with the lead.

HF: The Bulldogs are in the midst of a very tough WCHA schedule. You have North Dakota coming this weekend and then Denver. What are you doing to try and get things turned around?
SS: As I’ve mentioned before, we’re looking at what we’ve done in that last few games and how we’ve played. I think our guys feel better about themselves as far as the way we’ve played. We know that we haven’t won but I know that the last two days of practice have been very, very good. Our guys have a good attitude. They’re staying upbeat and working extremely hard. They want to get out of this slump. They know it’s a bounce or two that can change that, but if you don’t work, they’re not going to come. We’re trying to stay positive and stick together. I think that sticking together is real important as well as getting through it together. That’s what we’ve really tried to do, along with working on areas where we certainly feel that we need to get better at, whether it’s special teams or those types of things. Continuing to play good defensively and being conscientious about that also helps. We also need to just keep trying to keep the guys positive and not allow everything to come apart at the seams. I haven’t seen that in our players. I think our guys are actually closer (as a team) through this stretch and I believe that’s probably why we’ve been playing better in these last three games.

HF: Let’s move on to Team USA and the upcoming World Junior Championships. When you found out that you were chosen to replace Dean Blais as the head coach of Team USA, what was your initial reaction?
SS: A lot of excitement actually (chuckles). I looked at it as a great opportunity to coach at that level, going into this knowing that it’s going to be a great learning experience. I look at it as a great opportunity to do something again that this country has never done and that’s to win another one. Our team’s going to be different than last year’s because of the make up and different personalities. I think that’s one thing that I’ve tried to impress upon our guys when we met that last year is last year, and this year is this year. It’s a new year and it’s going to be a new team. We’re going to create our own identity, and hopefully that’s going to be the identity that gets a (gold) medal for this country.

HF: Were you surprised that you were named the new head coach?
SS: Not really (laughs). Maybe a little bit. I was certainly looking forward to working with Dean (Blais) I can tell you that. I like challenges and certainly when you get an opportunity to represent your country it’s tremendously exciting as well. I’ve done it as a player. I was fortunate enough a few years ago to coach the select (U-18) team in Germany, so I got a little bit of a taste of that and just had a great time with those guys. I think that this is going to be the same thing but certainly at a much higher stage with this tournament being what it is. I’m excited. I’ve got a good group, a good staff and we’re going to have fun with it. We’re going there to win. We’re not going there to finish second, we want to win. It’s on our home soil in Grand Forks and we know that we’re going to get a lot of support. I think our guys understand that.

HF: You inherit a USA squad that is the defending gold medalists and the host team. The pressure to repeat on you and the team must be enormous.
SS: There’s always pressure going into that tournament because you’re representing your country. I know that all of the players that we have understand that. Some of those guys have already been through it. If you look at Ryan Suter (NSH) and Patrick O’Sullivan (MIN), who this will be their third tournament, they’ve seen two years ago where they didn’t win a gold medal and last year they did. There’s no question that those guys and the six other guys that played last year are going to be key guys for us as far as the leadership role and sharing the experience of what the tournament is all about for the 14 new guys. It’s like a college class when you get those new guys because there’s so much energy and excitement that can be a real positive too.

HF: You succeed Mike Eaves, who coached Team USA to a gold medal back in January. Have you spoken to him about the experiences of coaching this type of team?
SS: Yeah, a little bit. I’ve also talked to other guys that have gone through it. Are we going to do some of the things similar to what they (last year’s team) did? Yes. Are we going to be a carbon copy? No, because we have different people and I’m not Mike Eaves. We’re going to play the way I think our team needs to play based upon who we have. There might be some significant differences, there might not be. We’re going to play a very aggressive style. We’re going to let the kids play, but they’re also going to be held accountable on certain areas of the rink. I think with the players that we have, there’s no question we can accomplish what we want to accomplish, that is hopefully to win every game and put ourselves in the position to win the gold medal.

HF: Since being named Team USA’s head coach, how difficult has it been for you to juggle your duties between coaching the Bulldogs and tending to Team USA-related business?
SS: Actually up to this point, it hasn’t really been too bad. As it gets closer to the tournament, it’s becoming a little more difficult. From August until now, it’s been a lot of evaluating with our staff and the people working with us. There are a lot of conference calls and a lot of communication to talk about players, what type of team we want to have as well as little bit of homework, much like your own recruiting. I’ve been out watching games much like I would with our team and at the same time I’ve been able to watch for our team. Up until the time leading up to yesterday (Tuesday) when we named the (remainder of the) team, it’s probably been a bit more time consuming, but that’s to be expected.

HF: When will you be leaving Minnesota-Duluth for the tournament?
SS: I leave next Thursday. I will miss our series with Denver.

HF: The evaluation camp was held back in August, what was that like?
SS: Busy (laughs). It was very busy. We had 42 players there. Between trying to get to know the players and our schedule, which included games with Sweden and Finland as well as inter-squad play, it was busy. It took a few days to get to know who everybody was, whether it was through practices or evaluating the games. As the camp went on, it got a little bit easier because you got a feel for the guys. It was a short period of time with a lot of games. There wasn’t a lot of practice time to maybe implement some things that we would have liked. At the same time, we tried to give our guys a good understanding of what we’re going to do when we get back together in December. Those are the things, that when we get together, we will work on right away. They understand what we want to do and where we want to go, whether it’s systems or specialty teams or things like that. We didn’t get a lot of specialty team work in there because with two teams in an evaluation camp it was kind of tough to maybe throw certain guys together, especially since we didn’t know who the team was going to be at the time. Our goal coming out of that camp was to narrow it down to a certain number and evaluate those players through the early part of September, October and November and see where we’re at. In turn, there have been some players that weren’t at camp that are on our team that have had good years. Those things happen. The camp was basically to get to know the players, to see what we have and narrow it down to try and get a more workable number that we can follow and evaluate.

HF: Can you briefly explain how the selection process works?
SS: Well, it’s obviously based on the (majority) of the kids that were at the camp and how they performed there. That would give us an idea. We would then all study the players, especially the players that we narrowed it down to, whether it was myself, my assistant coaches or some of the people working with us evaluating the players. Along with the many discussions and conference calls that I’ve had with my staff, I tried to get out and see certain players that we all felt were important for me to see. Through all of that, we came to where we are now. Ultimately as the head coach, do I have the final say? Yes (laughs). However, you can’t do this alone. We have a lot of very good people working with us, very trustworthy people that have been out there and seen a lot of the players. It’s a collective effort, but obviously as a head coach it can always rest on my shoulders.

HF: In addition to you and your coaching staff, who also makes up the selection committee?
SS: Lew Mongelluzzo (Team USA – Director of Player Personnel), Jack Barzee (Team USA – Player Personnel) and Jim Johansson (USA Hockey – Senior Director of Hockey Operations). We also interact with other (USA Hockey) people that are out there too but the aforementioned men were the main guys at our camp along with Mike (Hastings), David (Quinn) and myself. We had a good core of people that were getting a lot of information on the players. That helped us in trying to do the best job we can to put this team together.

HF: The preliminary roster was released early last month and several players appearing on it were also on the gold medal squad. Do you feel that those are the players who have to be the catalysts for the team going into this year’s tournament?
SS: They’re certainly the guys that we’re looking to because they’ve been there and they’ve been through it. Some guys are going to play an even more important role or a greater role this year than maybe they did last year. For example, Matt Hunwick (BOS) was there last year and he didn’t play a lot of minutes but this year he’s stepping into a different role. Some of these guys will play the same roles as last year. We have a good mixture of that experience and the new blood that I think is important too. There’s no question that having those guys and knowing what they did last year and how hard it was is really important to share with not only myself and our staff but with the rest of the team as well. When you put that jersey on, there’s a lot of pride. That’s something that those guys have experienced and is vitally important to our team. Another thing that those guys bring is team chemistry. That’s a crucial part of any team. We try to establish that chemistry early and get the guys all on the same page, doing things as a team and going through the whole tournament as a team because I believe that it is really, really crucial to success.

HF: The final roster was announced on Tuesday and the majority of the players on the Team USA squad are obviously from the NCAA. Having coached against some of them in the WCHA does that make your job a little easier as far as knowing what type of player that you’ll be coaching?
SS: A little bit. It’s nice to have some familiarity with those guys, few of which I’ve seen for a couple of years playing against them. Quite honestly, sometimes when you play them, you don’t even watch the other team, because you’re focused on your own team. Just knowing that they’ve played where they’ve played is helpful. When you look at college hockey and how competitive it is, as well as where some of these players are coming from whether it’s Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan or wherever, they’re all very well coached. They come from some very, very good programs. Having that competitive mindset is also going to be helpful. This is not to say nor imply that the (Canadian) Major Junior kids are not competitive at all. Believe me, I know how they play. Just look you look at the guys we have from that league. Having been around some of those (NCAA) guys and knowing what each weekend is about in college hockey, playing one or two back-to-back games and knowing how difficult and competitive it is, certainly helps me as far as knowing what kind of player we’re getting.

HF: You touched upon the Canadian Junior Leagues a bit. Team USA has some players from the Canadian Juniors on the roster. Was it difficult, particularly when the NCAA season got underway, to follow these players?
SS: Not really because as I mentioned, we have people out there watching them. I was fortunate enough to get out to watch some of those games too. I would say that it wasn’t any more difficult than watching the college guys because they’re spread all over the map too. You just try to have your people get out to see what they need to see and give you reports. I think that’s what we’ve tried to do as best as we could. Certainly there were lots of other players that are not on the team that were evaluated as well.

HF: How tough was it to pare down the roster?
SS: When you look at the quality of players that we have in our country, there were some very tough decisions to make. I think that’s a compliment to where we’re at hockey-wise in this country. It was not easy to leave off of the final roster some very good players that we all know. That said, you look at your team and try to figure out for where guys fit in. Hopefully we’ve done a good job in trying to piece together a team. Time will tell if we’ve done the right thing. I believe we’ve been very thorough collectively. Through our discussions we’ve talked about a lot of things. For us, we feel that we’ve put our team together, we’re moving forward and we feel pretty confident with our team.

HF: Two players who have garnered a lot of attention that have made the team for the first time are Chris Bourque (WSH) of Boston University and Robbie Schremp (EDM) of the London Knights (OHL). What was it about these two players that really impressed you, your coaching staff and the selection committee?
SS: If you look at what Robbie’s done in London, he’s certainly been one of their offensive leaders. I think he’s a good power play guy. He’s a guy who can certainly contribute offensively and maybe score that big goal for you. His first half of the year with London was certainly taken into consideration. Obviously we saw him at camp and he’s got a lot of skill and a lot of offensive ability. We felt that he warranted being on the team based on those two things. As for Chris, he was another player that was kind of a surprise at camp in terms of how he played. He’s not very big but he’s extremely competitive. I think he’s got very, very good hockey instincts. He’s kind of a little pit bull out there (chuckles). He’s been put into a variety of situations at BU. He’s on the point on the Terriers power play and he kills penalties. In my opinion, he’s going to be a very, very good college hockey player. Based just upon how he’s played and what he did at camp, he brings us some dimensions. Hopefully, he’ll be able to play up to those abilities that he has. He’s going to give us everything that he’s got and I know that. I’m fortunate that David Quinn coaches him at BU. David being the assistant coach there knows Chris real well. It’s easy to see that Chris is a good hockey player but he’s also a player with character who possesses a good work ethic, which are also important.

HF: You have two excellent assistant coaches In David Quinn from Boston University and Mike Hastings from the River City Lancers (USHL). What has it been like working with the two of them and what do they each bring to Team USA?
SS: It’s been a lot of fun for me. They’re both very knowledgeable and successful coaches. If you look at what Mike has done at River City year in and year out, they’re one of the best teams in the USHL. He was with the World Junior team two years ago in Halifax, so he brings that experience as well as a great knowledge of the game. I’ve known Mike for a long time through recruiting. This past summer I’ve gotten to know him more as a coach and I’ve been very, very impressed. It’s the same with David. I’ve had a good relationship with David through recruiting and obviously his work with the National Team Development Program (NTDP). He knows and has coached some of our players when they played with the NTDP. What he has done with the NTDP and now with BU is very insightful. Both Mike and David are also experienced on the international level. I feel very fortunate to have these guys on my staff. They work extremely hard and I’ve learned a lot from them over the summer. We all have similar yet different personalities, so I think that’s healthy too. We’re also all defensemen, I don’t know if that’s good. So we might be good defensively, hopefully (laughs).

HF: Finally, which opponent do you personally feel will be the toughest to play against in the tournament?
SS: Well, I think our first game against Russia is going to be one of the toughest we’re going to play. We’re going into this tournament looking at each game. I know a lot of people have brought up playing Canada. Quite honestly, that’s the furthest thing from my mind right now (chuckles). We have a very tough pool that we need to be successful in and it starts with the Russian team that has two pretty good players right off the bat. They’re always a very good team. The nice thing is we’ve got a lot of players that have played internationally and have been very successful in winning medals. What will make it tough is that the European teams have adapted really well to playing on a smaller sheet of ice than they did before, say 20 years ago. Some play very aggressively, while others play a trap-style system. They’re very good at forcing turnovers as well as in the transition game. They’re all very skilled. Our focus right now is to prepare the best we can for that first game versus Russia and win that game.

HF: Any chance we’ll all see another USA vs. Canada gold medal game?
SS: I certainly hope so.

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