Hobey Baker legend carries on through fire and pandemic

Scott Perunovich, the 2020 Hobey Baker Award winner, poses with the trophy and "Hobey," the Minnesota Wild's mascot, during a golf tournament and banquet last week in Lake Elmo. The Hobey Baker Award, which celebrates its 40th year, is the brainchild of current Lakeville resident Chuck Bard.

Lakeville resident brought college hockey award to life

The Hobey Baker Award banquet this year took place under a tent instead of in a dining room.

But at least it took place, as Chuck Bard’s vision for an award given to the nation’s top college hockey player observed its 40th year.

A banquet was to be held June 17 in St. Paul, but that couldn’t happen because of the pandemic. The awards committee was already planning a golf tournament in the summer to celebrate the 40th year of the program; the two events merged to honor the award’s history and the 2020 winner, University of Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Scott Perunovich. The event took place last week at Royal Golf Club in Lake Elmo.

Now in his 90s and living in Lakeville, Bard said his biggest regret is he couldn’t be there. It’s not easy for him to get around these days, and “with the virus, I didn’t want to risk it,” he said.

The first Hobey Baker Award winner, University of Minnesota forward Neal Broten, was announced in 1981 before a handful of reporters. Perunovich was announced as the 2020 winner on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

The award as it’s known today wouldn’t exist without Bard, who nursed it from idea to reality. Borrowing from the Heisman Award template for football, he sought to bring national recognition to a sport with a regional audience.

Bard was chief executive officer of Decathlon Athletic Club in Bloomington at the time. In the late 1970s, he met with a director of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, who told Bard about the club’s plans for a basketball award based on the Heisman. That became the Wooden Award, named for UCLA men’s coach John Wooden. The Wooden Award program honors the men’s and women’s players of the year.

Decathlon Club members liked the idea, and Bard started setting up a committee and lining up sponsors. Although the announcement of Broten as the 1981 winner wasn’t heavily attended, a black-tie banquet held about 10 days later sold out.

Broten was barely a year removed from playing for the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s team. Revered broadcaster Ray Scott agreed to be the emcee.

The featured speaker? “We had Gordie Howe,” Bard said. “That’s probably why it sold out.”

Instant credibility, in other words. Things only went upward from there. Hobey Baker Award winners also include Paul Kariya, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and current NHL players such as Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames, Jack Eichel and Jimmy Vesey of the Buffalo Sabres, and the Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar. Perunovich has signed a pro contract with the St. Louis Blues.

The Decathlon Club was heavily damaged in a December 2000 fire and never reopened. The awards banquet has since moved to the Minnesota Wild headquarters in St. Paul and a Hobey Baker Award display can be seen at Xcel Energy Center.

But the Hobey Baker program moves forward, fire or pandemic notwithstanding. The event also includes an annual award to a “Legend of College Hockey,” which this year was longtime coach Rick Comley. It also sponsors sportsmanship awards for high school players.

Sportsmanship was a critical part of Baker’s career; he was penalized only twice in his college hockey career. He played hockey and football for Princeton University. Baker was regarded as the best college hockey player of his time and is the only athlete to be in College Football Hall of Fame and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Baker was a fighter pilot in World War I; he had orders to return home but died of injuries from a plane crash in France in December 1918.

Bard, also charged with identifying a namesake for the new hockey award, studied the biographies of every member of the Hockey Hall of Fame (based in Canada) and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. He became enamored of Baker’s record and chose him as award namesake over three men with Minnesota connections – Frankie Brimsek, Moose Goheen and John Mariucci.

Most Division I hockey-playing colleges were in the eastern and central United States, and Bard said there were concerns about the award favoring one section of the country over the other. One prominent Minnesota journalist believed strongly the award should be named for a Minnesotan and didn’t hesitate to tell Bard that.

“Sid didn’t like it,” Bard said, referring to Minneapolis Tribune columnist Sid Hartman. “He thought it should be named for John Mariucci.”

Bard said he was proud that the award was accepted as recognizing all of Division I hockey, not just the Midwest. Winners represent 18 different schools, 12 states and three countries.

About 125 people played in the Hobey Baker Award golf tournament and approximately 150 attended the banquet, all observing social distancing protocol outdoors, said Apple Valley resident Wally Shaver, the award’s promotions and marketing director.

“All in all, it worked out,” said Shaver, also the radio play-by-play voice for University of Minnesota men’s hockey. “All three of our finalists were able to be there, and everybody seemed to have a good time, considering the circumstances.”

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