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Raising A National Champion

By Dan Bauer, 04/25/23, 8:45AM CDT


Raising a National Champion

by Dan Bauer

The birth year was 1998 when Rand Pecknold left the non-traditional waiting room and became the father of the brand new Quinnipiac Division One men’s hockey program.  After four years as a Division Three program in the ECAC South, the D1 Braves were born.

Fast forward to October of 2003: my second year as head coach at Wausau East and I was in Madison at the WHCA (Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association) Fall Clinic listening to Pecknold speak.  The Braves, now turned Bobcats, were trying to find their footing in the division one scene and were set to play the ascending Badgers in their second season under Mike Eaves.  The Badgers won 4-1 and 2-1 and the two teams have not met since.  Wisconsin would go on to win a National Championship with Eaves in 2006.

Pecknold made a big impression on me as he described the disadvantage he had in the recruiting game.  He simply stated, “I can’t recruit the same players Wisconsin can; they aren’t going to even talk to me.”  He continued, “We have to find those guys just below the top tier and then convince them to stay all four years.”  His plan was to build a program based on four-year players who could then use their experience, maturity and iron-clad team unity to overcome the youth and NHL level skill of the top tier NCAA schools like Wisconsin and Minnesota.  There is no Ikea manual on how to build a championship program, but Pecknold clearly had a plan. 

Pecknold’s twenty-nine-year quest ended when Jacob Quillan scored just ten seconds into overtime and the Bobcats stunned the Minnesota Gophers with a 3-2, come-from-behind win in Tampa Bay, securing their first National Championship!  His blueprint had persevered through every obstacle and season that came up short and built the championship team he had envisioned.  After asking ESPN announcer Colby Cohen for a “hug”, he discovered what many do in this moment, saying, “I can’t even put it into words.” 

It was the exact scenario Pecknold had outlined twenty years ago as his veteran team dominated a younger star ladened Minnesota Gopher team that included three NHL first round picks and the Big Ten Player of the Year.  While Quinnipiac players are still going to class and basking in the glow of their accomplishment, three Gophers have already signed NHL contracts.

An additional bit of irony was the set face-off play the Bobcats executed to net the game-winner just a blink of an eye into the overtime.  The free-wheeling speed and skill of the elite Gopher roster was doomed by the surgical execution and unrelenting blue-collar work ethic of the boys from Hamden, Connecticut.  It is a strong statement about the difficulty the top tier programs have in building championship teams with NHL players who are just passing through.  In the past six years, exactly one first round draft choice has held the NCAA Championship trophy, UMD’s Riley Tufte.

The Bobcat’s championship followed a familiar road, filled with failure and the brutally honest admission that their best had not been good enough.  Gopher head coach Bob Motzko, also seeking his first title, said after the game, “we’re crushed”.  It is the same inescapable devastation experienced by Quinnipiac in 2013 and 2016 as they fell short in the championship game.  When you experience that type of catastrophic failure something inside of you changes.  There is meticulous growth, like the ivy at Wrigley Field, that weaves an emotional armor that emboldens you to chase that next dream.  You learn you will survive and that the best part of failure is the vision and drive it produces to try and do it all over again.  Your fear of failure disappears.

Both coaches did their best following the game, in an emotionally paralyzing moment of grief and elation.  Pecknold later admitted, “I should have declined the interview with ESPN; I was a mess.”  They expressed joy and pride in the special relationship that coaches and players achieve during a season.   Motzko lamented, “We just had a wonderful group”.  Still battling the raw emotions of the loss, his words were focused on the hockey family they created, “The love we have in the group—I’m crushed for them, for all of us.” 

From the outside it is the result we are focused on, from the inside it is the relationships and the journey that regardless of the outcome, has come to an end.  The stark reality of a season completed slowly comes to focus even for the winners as they stand on top of the mountain.  It is the reality of writing the final words in that single chapter in your book of life.

At the winner’s podium, Pecknold pounded the drum of the cornerstone of great teams, “Elite, elite character young men,” is how he described them.  He later added when a reporter, citing his team’s character, said that his kids were special, Pecknold replied, “that’s why we’re here.”  Programs with high standards attract players with high character.  Talent is a requirement for championship teams, and there is no question these Bobcats had talent, but it is only one of several essential championship ingredients. 

A key cog in the Quinnipiac machine was the return of five fifth-year seniors who used their covid year and returned, “This is why we came back,” captain Zach Metsa proclaimed. 

It is no secret in the world of athletics that creating a culture of family, respect and trust is the goal of any worthwhile coach.  The effort it takes to nurture a family environment among twenty-five athletes, who are not biologically related, is a monumental task.  It takes complete buy-in from everyone in the group whether you are playing twenty minutes a game or two.  That type of selfless, team first mentality does not happen without players that possess great character. 

Pecknold was the father figure this family of Bobcats needed.  Like a great father he struggled through the program’s infancy with midnight practices and insufficient funding.  “I'd get up. I had to go recruit because we weren't very good. I didn't have enough players,” Pecknold said. “I got home, slept 3:00 to 6.00 a.m. Then I got up. I was just in survival mode.”  He harbored his team through seven consecutive seasons where they only reached double digit wins twice.  He set the bar high and then found the players that were willing to reach for it.  Even when the evidence was lacking, he convinced his players that this dream would one day come true.  He was steady, stern and honest.

Fifth year Covid senior Ethan de Jong said it perfectly, “This program is like a kid to him.”

And when you do it right, all the kids in your program really do become your kids.  Raising a family or convincing a team to become a family are both arduous tasks, but the rewards are immense.  George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote sums it up quite eloquently, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven.”  He is not wrong because the relationships you build with your players are what truly makes the journey so special.  It is no exaggeration that these athletes become your second family.  Some of those relationships never end.

“These guys are going to be friends for the rest of their life,” Pecknold predicted, “I am jealous.”

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI.  You can contact him at