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St. Cloud State’s memorable championship: a stop in jail and hockey sticks for snow shovels

After snowdrifts stranded the Huskies’ bus on their return trip from clinching the regular-season conference title, team members posed with their rescuers and the Penrose Cup. St. Cloud State University photo

A championship season is always an adventure.

But the one the St. Cloud State men’s ice hockey team just finished, well, they’ll be talking about this adventure for years to come.

And it’s not because the Huskies entered the postseason as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. And not because they capped their second straight National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular-season championship with a 5-0 win over Omaha, setting off locker room celebrations with first-year coach Brett Larson and the usual team pictures with the Penrose Cup, a trophy large enough to use for bobbing for apples.

It’s because of the blizzard. And the jail. And the jail cook. And the 15 hours it took to make what is normally a six-hour drive home.

Because by the time the Huskies were clutching the cup inside Baxter Arena, the winds outside were blowing hard. The snow was blinding. Omaha was wrapped in a blizzard.

Rescuers brought in heavy equipment in hopes of freeing the bus. St. Cloud State University photo

The solution seemed simple: Play it safe, stay an extra night, ride out the storm. Except the weather didn’t behave as forecasters expected. And when the Huskies left the next morning, the storm stayed with them.

Roads started closing as they entered southwest Minnesota, so the bus turned down county roads and plowed through a deep snowdrift in an effort to reach an open road. But soon after, another drift rose high on the bus. They surely would get stuck if they attempted to plow through, and the drift behind them was too deep to escape without the aid of speed. Players broke out their hockey sticks and started to dig, but this opponent was unbeatable.

Temperatures hung around 10 degrees. Winds whipped at more than 30 mph.

“Stuck between 2 huge drifts,” assistant coach Mike Gibbons tweeted. “Rations & fuel running low, toilet is filling up, 911 said; ‘It’s gonna take awhile.’ Whatever that means.”

They were 7 miles from St. James, Minnesota, population 4,600. Hotels.com throws up its hands when you search there. So the Huskies were stuck in the middle of nowhere, in need of a savior.

A savior like Watonwan County Sgt. Barry Gulden.

It was Gulden who answered the distress call, arriving in the middle of the storm with a tractor to plow through the drift as players cheered. “Our hero,” Gibbons tweeted.

Gulden escorted the team back to town. He gave them shelter at the county jail because the few nearby hotels were booked. “Gosh, I’ve never been to jail before,” some players joked. Then Gulden called in a favor at a local eatery, the humbly named Hometown Restaurant, which typically supplies food for the jail. The team and coaches feasted on roast beef, bread, mashed potatoes and gravy. And, naturally, more jokes landed about how good jail food can taste.

Suddenly, Gulden and the restaurant owner felt like part of the team. They posed with the Penrose Cup — champions in their own right.

By evening, the winds had finally died down. The team filed back onto the bus for the final 2½ hours of their drive home. It was 11:05 p.m. when they pulled in, the bus rapt with cheers.

Finally, they were home, with both an adventure and a conference championship title to remember.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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