By Frank Rajkowski, SJU Writer/Video Producer
COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – It’s been 25 years since Nick Kulenkamp ’98 and his teammates on the 1996-97 Saint John’s University hockey team led the Johnnies to what remains the most successful season in program history.
But the group remains close – gathering together for a reunion every summer.
“We were just a bunch of guys who had a passion for hockey and that brought us together,” said Kulenkamp, who is now the Vice President of Information Technology at Travelers, a St. Paul-based insurance company.
“And when we get together today, it’s like we never left the locker room. The bond is still as tight as it was back then.”
Kulenkamp was a junior forward on that team – which finished 26-6-1, won its second-straight MIAC regular-season and postseason title and defeated Elmira (NY) College in a two-game, first-round NCAA Division III playoff series on March 14 and 15 at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.
The first game ended in a 2-2 tie, but Saint John’s prevailed 4-2 the following night to win the series and advance to the final four – hosted by then-two-time defending national champion Middlebury (Vt.).
It was a culmination of a journey that began four years earlier when John Harrington – a member of the legendary gold-medal winning 1980 US Olympic hockey team – was named head coach.
The season before his arrival, the Johnnies finished tied for seventh in the MIAC standings – ahead of only last-place Bethel. But they improved to second in his first season in 1993-94. Then, after finishing fifth in 1994-95, they rebounded to capture the school’s first conference title since 1950 in 1995-96 – falling in a two-game series at Wisconsin-Superior in the first round of the NCAA playoffs.
“What it came down to was that we were the first recruiting class that Coach Harrington and Goose (assistant coach Jeff Giesen) put together there,” said Rob Skiba ’97, a senior defenseman in 1996-97 who now works as a lumber trader in Bend, Ore.
“We were a group of guys who came in with chips on our shoulders because we wanted to play at the Division I level. But (Harrington) put us together as a team and made the success we had possible.”
That success set the stage for what was to come.
“We went up to Superior the year before and I think that really opened our eyes about what it took to compete at that level,” said Jerr Johnson ’97, a senior forward in 1996-97 who is now the head boys hockey coach at St. Michael-Albertville (Min.) High School.
“We came back really hungry the next year.”
That hunger took them all the way to Vermont for a showdown with Middlebury in the national semifinals. But before that, the team took a trip to nearby Lake Placid, NY, where their head coach had played such a huge role in hockey history 17 years earlier.
“We got to go over there and have him lead us on a tour,” Johnson recalls. “That was an amazing experience. Because he didn’t talk a lot about (the 1980 Olympic run) with us. In the four years I was there, I think we only saw his gold medal once or twice at holiday parties at his house But on the bus on the way there he started to open up about it.
“And to be with him in that place was just an incredible thing to be part of.”
Back on the ice, the Johnnies came up short against Middlebury, falling 4-1 to a program in the midst of a run of five-straight national titles. But they rebounded the following day to top Norwich (Vt.), 4-3.
“The semifinal didn’t go our way, but the next day (Harrington) rallied us,” Kulenkamp said. “He gave a pretty emotional speech. We approached that (third-place game) with the mantra ‘Play for the picture.’ We wanted to take a picture on the ice with that third-place trophy. And that picture is still one of my most-prized possessions.”
Johnson, Kulenkamp, Skiba, junior defenseman Ryan Mitchell ’98 and sophomore goalie Mark Rice ’97 were each named to the All-MIAC first-team that season.
And through the years, the players have remained in touch – only growing closer in 2015 when Tyler Berqual ’98, a junior forward on the 1996-97 team, died after a battle with brain cancer.
“He was such an incredible part of all of our lives,” Kulenkamp said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him or remember him. We always call each other by our numbers – even still. He was No. 28 and we still talk about 28 all the time when we get together .”
“It’s crazy to think it’s been 25 years now,” Johnson added. “But we’re all still close. Our team chemistry was our biggest strength and that hasn’t faded.”
20 years ago (2002) – The Saint John’s track and field team took first place at a triangular event featuring Gustavus Adolphus and Concordia-Moorhead. Andy Keenan ’02 won the 5,000 meters in a time of 15:21.51 in a race in which the Johnnies swept the top 10 places. The meet had been scheduled to be held outdoors at Clemens Stadium, but weather forced it inside to the Donald McNeely Spectrum.
40 years ago (1982) – Freshman Santiago Alva ’85 was off to a 5-0 start at No. 1 singles for the Saint John’s tennis team, which was 4-0 as a team with wins over Macalester, Bethel, St. Cloud State and nationally-ranked Gustavus.
60 years ago (1962) – The Saint John’s football team began spring workouts with three candidates vying for the team’s starting quarterback job – Craig Muyres ’64, Jim Hopkins ’64 and Tom Antil ’65. The job eventually went to Muyres, who led the Johnnies to an undefeated season in 1962 and the NAIA national title in 1963.
80 years ago (1942) – Student coach Dan Rooney capped the first wrestling season in school history by winning the 115-pound weight class at the Northwest AAU Tournament.