Thursday, December 13, 2012

What If: Bjorkman's Conundrum

Summer 1964: Rube Bjorkman leaves RPI abruptly for New Hampshire

The Animals - House of the Rising Sun

Long-time Engineer fans, and those newer ones familiar with the history of the program, know that the mid-to-late 1960s were among some of the worst of times for RPI hockey.  Many attribute the struggles of that time period to Ned Harkness' immediate replacement behind the bench - Minnesota native Rube Bjorkman, who would eventually go on to be awarded the Kelley Founders Award by the American Hockey Coaches Association for his contributions to the growth and development of hockey in the United States. Bjorkman's single season at RPI was his first as a college coach and produced the best post-season results of his eventual 15-year college hockey coaching career, but his tenure also nearly ruined hockey at RPI.

Rubin "Rube" Bjorkman arrived at RPI in 1963 after Harkness left Troy to take the reins at then-unfancied Cornell. He was a distinguished replacement for the man who was essentially the modern founder of RPI hockey, arriving with an exceptional resume. A hero in his hometown Roseau, MN where he helped the school win its first state championship in 1946 (the small town in the state's extreme north is still known for outstanding high school hockey), Bjorkman graduated from Minnesota in 1951 as one of the squad's top stars of the NCAA tournament era. While still at Minnesota, he played on the US Olympic team at the St. Moritz Olympics in 1948 and just after graduation was a key member of the silver medal team at Oslo in 1952.

He began coaching ten years later, at Greenway High School in Coleraine, MN. In his first season behind the bench, Greenway reached the Minnesota state tournament for the first time. A year later, he was on his way east to become the second coach in RPI Hockey's modern era.

The team Bjorkman inherited in Troy was a talented one. It featured senior Bob Brinkworth, the reigning ECAC player of the year who had also been ECAC rookie of the year in 1962, and junior Jerry Knightley, who, like Brinkworth, had little problem scoring at will.

In those days, the ECAC had been a very informal collection of eastern teams and little more than an invitational tournament at the end of the season that would help determine which two teams would earn the eastern bids to the NCAA tournament. As such, the 29 teams that made up the conference played wildly varying "conference" schedules (as many as 25 games by New Hampshire and as few as 8 by UConn and Vermont). RPI under Bjorkman finished with a respectable 12-6-0 record in the league, which earned them an invite to the ECAC tournament.

After defeating Boston College in Chestnut Hill to advance to the semifinals, RPI was knocked off by a cinderella team from St. Lawrence, 3-1, but the Engineers bounced back to a surprising 7-2 victory in the consolation game over a Clarkson team that had beaten them twice before earlier in the season, including a 13-4 whitewash in Potsdam. That win over Clarkson earned RPI a ticket to their fourth-ever NCAA tournament apperance.

The 1964 tournament took place in Denver at the University of Denver Arena, and as fate would have it the Engineers were drawn against the homestanding Denver Pioneers, falling 4-1 to end RPI's national championship hopes. The Engineers drew a respectable 2-1 victory over the ECAC's regular season and tournament champions, Providence, so they were able to end the season with a legitimate claim as one of the best teams in the east. Knightley's return, along with that of junior goaltender Bill Sack, should have pegged the Engineers as a team to watch in 1965.

Instead, Bjorkman left RPI late in the summer following the season after the sudden death of New Hampshire coach "Whoop" Snively. Suddenly needing a coach, RPI alum Garry Kearns, who had stayed in the Troy area after graduation, took over the program, and soon found a listless organization.

The reasons Bjorkman left the cupboard bare at RPI have not been well established, but all signs have pointed to problems with recruiting. Some recruits who had committed to RPI during Harkness' final season appear to have not ended up matriculating, leaving a weak class of incoming sophomores (in those days, freshmen were ineligible for varsity play). That was an immediate problem for Kearns' first season, which was middling thanks to the presence of Knightley and Sack.

Longer term, Bjorkman had his own recruiting failures that would haunt the program. It has been said that, coming from Minnesota, he had lacked the connections Harkness had in Ontario, which had been the school's most rich recruiting grounds. Also, of the recruits Bjorkman had been able to attract to RPI, few or none were able to withstand the school's difficult entry requirements. The combination of geographic and academic difficulties were apparently more than Bjorkman was prepared to handle, and the change of venue to Durham likely helped his own career immensely.

Meanwhile, back at RPI, Kearns was forced to throw teams together as best he could. The 1966 team, which suffered the most from Bjorkman's inability to draw quality recruits, won only three games, none in the ECAC, and most of the losses were by lopsided margins. The following season was little better in league play, as RPI skated to a 1-14 record in the ECAC, with a one-goal win over Army the only bright spot in league play, and a tie at home against Michigan the high point of the year.

Things got bad enough that fans started to leave in droves, and the school began to seriously ponder whether staying in the top level of the ECAC was truly in the best interest of the program. Ultimately, Kearns guided the program through the shallows, and by the time he left in 1969, the program was off life support and ready to continue in Division I.

The question of what would have become of the program had Snively not had a heart attack in the summer of 1964, opening the door for Bjorkman to leave RPI in the breach, is difficult to answer. Obviously, if Bjorkman had still been behind the bench in 1965, his recruiting problems would have been his own, and it's difficult to know how he would have dealt with them. The only real way to do this is to look at his career as a coach.

The Wildcats improved every season during Bjorkman's four-year tenure in Durham, but UNH was still playing outdoors in the mid-1960s, which basically killed any chance they had of winning championships. His last two years were the first in UNH's new rink, and both seasons were winning ones. Then in 1968, Bjorkman returned to western hockey, taking the helm at North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux had just come off a loss in the national championship game when he arrived, they would not return to that height until 1979 - the year after he left. In 10 years in Grand Forks, he compiled a record above .500 just twice. He is the only  North Dakota coach since 1957 that never took the team to the Frozen Four.

Suffice to say, Bjorkman's legacy behind the bench, with the exception of the Kelley Award, was somewhat less than stellar - and in light of his recruiting struggles at RPI and subsequent difficulties coaching at a school that was already a traditional western power, it might be safe to say that the Institute didn't quite make the right call when it came to replacing Ned Harkness.

So, what if he'd stayed? Perhaps he could have managed, eventually, to find the right student-athletes from the right places with the right heads on their shoulders, but would he have been able to duplicate the relative success of that one season behind the bench? The evidence suggests that he probably wouldn't have been able to do that at RPI if he couldn't manage it at North Dakota. If Bjorkman had stuck around, the decline of the late 1960s probably still would have taken place, and it would have taken place without the grit and determination of an alum at the helm in Garry Kearns.

For better or for worse, the guidance that Kearns provided during his tenure as coach helped save the program - and secured for him a much deserved spot in the RPI Hockey Ring of Honor for his contributions as both a player and a coach. As good as Bjorkman's one season was - led, remember, by two RPI legends recruited by Harkness - there's not much doubt that further seasons would be unlikely to have materialized. Looking back today, Bjorkman's abrupt departure, which allowed the school to make a good decision in place of a bad one, may have helped save the program from being moved to what is today Division III.

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