ST. JAMES, Minn. — There are some colorful stories of the travels of the NHL’s Stanley Cup, including how it has ended up in the bottom of a swimming pool and a canal, been used for baptisms and spent time in an active war zone in Afghanistan.
The Penrose Cup is 6 years old, but now has a travel tale attached to it. The trophy is awarded to the team that wins the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular season title.
The top-ranked St. Cloud State men’s hockey team clinched the Penrose on Saturday, Feb. 23, with a 5-0 win over Nebraska-Omaha at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Neb. Because of blizzard conditions, the team stayed in Omaha that night.
It took the team 14 hours to get back to St. Cloud on Sunday, which included a short layover in the Watonwan County Jail in St. James Typically, the drive from Omaha to St. Cloud takes about 6 1/2 hours.
“It was actually a fun adventure,” Huskies assistant coach Mike Gibbons said. “It was good to get back, but we were kind of sad when it got done.”
“At the time, it was not very fun,” St. Cloud State captain Jimmy Schuldt said. “I think coach Gibbons going on Twitter (@gibhockey) and making jokes about it helped the guys have a better attitude about it. Being able to laugh at it helped. We were trying to shovel the snow with hockey sticks at one point. It ended up being something that we’ll laugh about in a short time.”
The Huskies had breakfast in Omaha at about 7 a.m. Sunday, loaded the bus and began driving back. But when the bus got to southern Minnesota, they began getting alerts that roads were being closed. In an effort to keep the drive going, the team decided to try to get to Minnesota Highway 15 or Mankato from Minnesota Highway 60.
But between St. James and Madelia, the team bus hit a snow drift. The bus made it through, but then there was another issue.
“We kind of rammed through it and everyone was cheering,” Schuldt said of the snow drift. “But we drove a little longer and there was an even bigger (drift) ahead and it would be impossible to get through that one. We tried turning around, but it was a narrow road, so we had no chance with a bus.
“We were thinking of backing through it, but to do that, we were thinking we had to back through it. Somebody had the idea to have us shoving the path with hockey sticks. That was more funny than anything.”
The sticks-as-shovels snow removal attempt did not last more than a few minutes.
“It was almost like curling,” Huskies senior Robby Jackson said, comparing it to another sport played on ice. “We were cleaning away, trying to make way for the bus.”
With little accomplished with the sticks, the team got back on the bus and called 9-1-1.
“The (Watonwan County) sheriff came to our rescue, but we needed a plow,” Gibbons said.
And as you can imagine in blizzard conditions, help was not immediate.
“It was probably 2 1/2 hours,” said Jackson, who is from Alameda, Calif. “It was so surreal. The reality of it didn’t hit me until the sheriff and the plow showed up. I couldn’t fathom that we could actually be stuck in the middle of nowhere.”
The bus was about 7 miles east of St. James, which is about 40 miles southwest of Mankato. Watonwan County Sheriff’s Sgt. Barry Gulden arrived with the help.
“That big tractor came with the sheriff and he was pretty upset with us at first,” Schuldt said. “We explained what we were doing, that we were a Division I hockey team trying to get home. When he saw the Penrose Cup, he seemed to kind of laugh at us.”
As the team followed the plow and Gulden back to St. James, Gulden stopped to help other stranded drivers. At one point, players got off the bus and tried to move a car to help some travelers get out.
“One car seemed like it was frozen to the road,” Schuldt said. “We pushed and it wasn’t budging. So they just got out of the car.
“Seeing people stuck in snowbanks like that … now that’s scary. We had a big bus, plenty of gas and guys to play cards and joke around with.”
Jackson agreed that seeing others stranded was a fearful sight.
“You would think about how long they had been sitting there and at least we had each other,” Jackson said. “That would have been real panic.”
Once they got to St. James, though, there were issues that had to be addressed. That was when the bus stopped at the jail, while possible plans were being discussed.
“At that point (about 5:30 p.m.), we heard there was zero chance of us getting out of St. James (Sunday),” Schuldt said. “We went to the county jail and we were either going to be there or the local Armory where there would be cots to sleep on for the night.
“Everyone assumed we were going to stay in jail that night … guys were laughing about it and talking about meeting some inmates and imaginations got going a little bit.”
The first order was to get something to eat. There was no restaurant opened, but the jail gets its food from Home Town Cafe. Gulden got the restaurant to open for the team and the team ate there.
Then the roads cleared enough for the team to get back on the road and made it back to St. Cloud by about 10 p.m.
“Ron Nyquist, our bus driver, was the MVP of the road trip,” Schuldt said. “He got us home safely.”
St. Cloud State has won back-to-back Penrose Cup titles and is the first NCHC team to win its regular season championships three times.