Steve Forliti recalled sitting next to Nick Rivera’s parents at a Minnesota State men’s hockey game this past season and pointing up to the banner commemorating the Mavericks’ 1980 NCAA Division II championship.
“I said, ‘I was captain of that national championship team, and your son will be captain of the next national championship team,’” Forliti said.
The coronavirus pandemic wiped out Minnesota State’s chances of winning its first Division I title, but Forliti still believes this year’s Mavericks would have done just that — 40 years after his team won the school’s only hockey championship.
“It was a lot like the team this year,” said Forliti, who lives in Rochester and attended several MSU home games this season. “There were so many similarities between this team and that team. We were fortunate to have top-end players who didn’t really know how good they were, players like Mike Weinkauf and Steve Carroll, just like Marc Michaelis and the top guys this year.”
Don Brose, who coached the Mavericks’ first 30 seasons, agreed.
“The team this year was the best the Mavericks ever had,” Don Brose said. “But (the 1980 team) was a heck of a hockey team.”
For most hockey fans, the year 1980 is remembered for the Miracle on Ice, the U.S. Olympic team’s shocking win over the Soviet Union and gold-medal victory two days later.
About three weeks later, though, the Mavericks capped a 30-win season with a 5-2 upset victory over Elmira at Elmira, New York.
“We think of it as the Miracle in Mankato,” said Carroll, who was the goaltender on that team.
Carroll made 42 saves in the championship and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“We were the underdogs, for sure, in the entire tournament,” Carroll said. “In the semifinals, we knocked off the defending national champions (Lowell). Against Elmira, the host school, there were about 4,000 people crammed into the building, with only about 50 cheering for Mankato, including parents and maybe a few students who made it out there.”
Although the Mavericks were underdogs, they were in a familiar spot.
They took third place nationally in 1978 when Carroll and Forliti were freshmen and were the runners-up to Lowell in 1979.
From the start of the ’79-80 season, the Mavericks were on a mission to win it all.
“We only had one senior (Steve Loomis),” Forliti said. “And we had a group of guys that went through that together. We had two scars from previous years, taking third and then second. Those were hard. But that helped us stay focused.”
“As freshmen and sophomores, we were close, so we felt like we could play at that level” he said. “When we returned as juniors, we had a goal in mind not only to get to the national championship again but to win the gold.”
It all began, ironically enough, with a 6-2 loss at Elmira in a season-opening tournament. The Mavericks went 0-2 that weekend but then lost just seven times the rest of the way, going 30-9-1.
After defeating local rival Gustavus Adolphus 5-2 and St. Scholastica 14-6 in the regional tournament, the Mavericks went back to the final four. There, they avenged the previous year’s loss to Lowell with an 8-1 victory in the semifinals and jumped out to a 4-0 lead against Elmira in the title game, which was broadcast on an upstart cable-TV channel called ESPN.
In 40 games, the Mavericks scored 293 goals, which is still a season record for men’s hockey at all divisions. In their 11-game winning streak to finish the season, including the championship, they averaged 9.9 goals per game.
“We had a lot of snipers on that team,” Brose said.
The Mavericks had five players with at least 29 goals, including Forliti (32), John Passolt (31), Paul Mattson (30), Greg Larson (29) and Tom Kern (29). Passolt finished the season with 77 points, and Forliti had 76.
“We had a lot of offensive firepower,” Carroll said. “It was a very talented team, and we had good defensemen, as well. We could close out games. We had a unique combination of talent.”
Carroll and Weinkauf, a defenseman with 48 points, were All-Americans that season. Carroll played in 38 games, and his 29 wins stood as the team record until this past season when Dryden McKay won 30 games.
“There were a lot of skilled kids,” Brose said, “and they got along well. They still do today when they see each other.”
The 1980 team’s 30 victories were the team record until MSU won 32 in 2018-19. The Mavericks had 31 this season when the season was called prior to the semifinal round of the WCHA tournament.
“It was a good bunch of guys,” Forliti said. “We played together on the ice, and we played together off the ice. We were fortunate to have that many great people in that group.”
Forliti said the same could be said for the 2020 team, which had seven seniors, including Michaelis and Rivera, who set out on a mission to win the first Division I national tournament game, get to the Frozen Four and capture a championship.
“When I sat in the stands, I would hear people talking and saying the same things they said about our team: ‘They play together well.’ ... ‘They put the team first.’ And that’s where they had success; they put the individual aside and put the team as a priority.”
Forliti, Carroll and company went back to the final four as seniors but lost in the semifinals and finished in third place.
Follow Shane Frederick on Twitter @puckato