Glory days, well, they’ll pass you by
Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory days, glory days—Bruce Springsteen
Sometimes, the glory lasts for a very long time.
Back in November, the Old Dog managed to snag an interview with a guy who is probably the #2 goaltender in Husky history, trailing only Tony Esposito. Jim Warden, who was in the nets for Tech’s last NCAA Championship team from 1975, is now living in North Carolina and is part of a small business that sells building materials.
Not only does Warden’s national championship stand out, he’s also the Huskies’ only goalie to play for the US Olympic team. Warden arrived on campus in the fall of 1972, just as The Old Dog was completing basic training at Fort Knox in Kentucky. I first learned about Warden in the spring of 1975, when he was the subject of a feature article in Sports Illustrated. It’s a great article about Jim, but it was awkward for him when it was published.
As Jim told me, “Sports Illustrated was supposed to write an article about the team,” and the writer (Mark Mulvoy, who later would hold the top spot at SI from 1984 to 1996), interviewed several members of John MacInnes’ squad. Tech was coming off a second-place finish in the NCAA championship that year, losing to Herb Brooks and Minnesota, and was tearing up the WCHA. When the article came out and it was totally focused on Jim, he was embarrassed by the attention.
Warden was already viewed as ”different” by his teammates, and the article just added to that perception. While he was born in Detroit, he spent nearly all of his youth in Southern California in the 1960’s. And, as the Old Dog knows, if you remember the ‘60’s, you weren’t really there. This was the land of the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, sunshine, free-thinking, and boundless hope for the future. However, it wasn’t much of a hockey hot spot—there were a limited number of rinks, youth teams weren’t common, and the surfing scene was huge.
While Warden had been a minor hockey standout, he realized he wasn’t going to explore his potential staying in the Golden State. So, he packed up and enrolled in the Blake School in Hopkins, MN, a high-end, private (and academically rigorous) prep school with an outstanding high school hockey tradition. (To this day, Warden is listed as one of the schools notable alumni on Wikipedia.) At Blake, in his senior year (1972), Warden caught the attention of several college coaches, including Lou Lamoriello at Providence and Herb Brooks at Minnesota.
As Warden explained, Brooks was very candid and told him that the Gophers had two experienced keepers returning, and “we’ll try and get you in but you won’t play much” in his first year. At the same time, John MacInnes had been unhappy with his goaltending and was looking for a recruit. According to Warden, MacInnes contacted Mike Sertich (MTU head coach from 2000-2003) who was in the middle of a long and successful run at Minnesota-Duluth, and Sertich mentioned Warden as the best young goalie he’d seen.
Up to that point, MacInnes had recruited almost exclusively from Canada, and Tech rarely had any Americans on the roster. Nevertheless, MacInnes called a young Warden and, again as Jim tells it, John said “You’ll be the number one guy coming in, you can have any type of equipment you want,” a sight-unseen offer that was in sharp contrast with Brooks’ ‘you’ll have to pay your dues’ offer.
And, just for context, this was one year before Brooks and MacInnes would begin dueling for three straight years in the NCAA championship game, a streak that has never been equaled and may never be seen again.
So, Warden headed off to the Keweenaw, and his free-spirited ways were in sharp contrast with the rest of his teammates. True to his word, Warden got to play a lot in his freshman year, but Warden shared time with Rick Quance. By Warden’s sophomore season (73-74), MacInnes had assembled the best collection of talent ever seen at Tech, including Mike Zuke, George Lyle, Bob D’Alvise, Lorne Stamler, Bob Lorimer, Bruce Abbey, and Jim Narhgang. That team won the MacNaughton Cup and posted a 20-6-2 conference record (28-9-3 overall).
In the WCHA playoffs, MacInnes sat Warden in the first game in the final qualifying series because, again according to Jim, MacInnes just didn’t trust Warden, partly because of his different ways off the ice. Tech lost 8-6 to Michigan State in the opener of a two-game total-goal series and sitting out was a tough pill to swallow. MacInnes came back to Warden on the second night, and Warden said, “I stood on my head in that one” and Tech bombed the Spartans 8-2 and took the series to head off to the NCAA Championship in Boston.
After that game, in the locker room, MacInnes told Warden that he had become a man that night. Warden, who expressed a great deal of respect and admiration for MacInnes in our interview, was choked up with emotion as he related this story to me.
In the Frozen Four, Tech beat Harvard 6-5 in overtime in the semi-final. But once again, in the finals, MacInnes put Quance back between the pipes and the Huskies lost to Minnesota 4-2. In fairness, it’s worth noting that Quance had been chosen as the second team All-WCHA goalie that season, so MacInnes’ choice can’t be seen as a total surprise.
The next year was the season the Huskies’ got revenge. Warden took over the crease, playing 31 of Tech’s 42 games that season. But it wasn’t without a few bumps along the way. Just before Christmas, Tech had been thumped rather badly by Minnesota. The Gophers would win the MacNaughton Cup that year, while MTU finished second on the WCHA—and losing that game was the difference in the Chase for MacNaughton in 1975. After the NCAA loss the previous year, that December game stung.
According to Warden, the turning point that season was the Great Lakes Invitational tournament–Tech’s first games after the embarrassing loss to the Gophers. In the opener, Tech clobbered Yale 7-3. Then, in the championship game, the Huskies trailed the Dan Farrell-coached Michigan Wolverines 2-0 with just five minutes left in the third period. Some way, somehow, Tech scored three times in the last five minutes to win the tournament.
After that, the Huskies never looked back. Despite not winning the MacNaughton Cup, they stormed through the WCHA playoffs and advanced to the Frozen Four in St. Louis. In the semi-final, the Huskies had no trouble with Boston University, topping the Terriers 9-5. Then, in the finals, Tech simply destroyed Minnesota 6-1 (a video link can be found here on THG). Warden made 22 saves and only lost the shutout halfway through the third period with Tech ahead 6-0. He was named MVP of the Frozen Four.
I asked Jim about his memories of that game. Interestingly, he didn’t really have any. He was so dialed in, so focused, that he just doesn’t recall anything about the game at all. Maybe in today’s environment, with the hype and post-game interviews, analysis, and media scrutiny that the Frozen Four generates, that couldn’t happen. But maybe that’s just what great performances yield—an other-worldly level of concentration that doesn’t leave room for vivid recollection.
Warden didn’t return for his senior year at Tech, although the Huskies again advanced to the NCAA championship and lost to Minnesota in 1976. Instead, he was selected to the US Olympic Team for the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, Austria. In the final round, Warden played every minute of every game for Team USA.
That team was the last run-up to the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, and they were out-manned by the teams fielded by the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Warden posted at 4.2 GAA in the Olympic tournament, but also had a 0.914 save percentage—and he faced a ton of shots. In only one game did he see less than 40 shots on goal—and he stopped 60 of 66 shots in their opening round game against the Gold Medal Soviets—a team that included all-time Russian greats Aleksandr Maltsev, Boris Mikhailov, Valery Kharlamov, and Vladislav Tretiak. In fact, Warden was the only goalie to hold the Soviets under 7 goals during the tournament, except during their gold medal win against Czechoslovakia.
After the Olympics, Warden spent the rest of the 70’s playing professionally in the California Golden Seal and Minnesota Stars organizations in the Central Hockey League. It was, as Jim says, “a different environment with little to no coaching and the game was wide open with less checking, holding and man on man coverage.” It was the run-and-gun era of pro hockey, and the goalies were often bombarded night after night. However, he was still good enough to make the US World Cup teams in 1978 and 1979 and was able to again represent his country in major international tournaments.
Finally, after the 79-80 season, Jim felt it was time to finish his degree at Tech. MacInnes was still behind the bench, and he hired Warden as an assistant, giving Warden a paid opportunity to get his MTU diploma. For two years, Warden mentored the goalies. In 81, Tech again made the NCAA tournament–a team led by Mel Pearson. They won their quarter-final two game total goals contest against Providence (at the Friars’ rink) but lost in the semifinal to (you guessed it) Minnesota. They then won a consolation game against Northern Michigan to take third place.
In the next season, Tech moved to the CCHA in what turned out to be MacInnes’ final year before his untimely passing in 1983. It wasn’t a banner year, but Warden finished his studies. He then reached out to his agent, looking for just one more chance to play the game he loves.
He found a home with the Carolina Thunderbirds in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, a predecessor to the East Coast Hockey League. Rick Dudley, now Senior VP of Hockey Operations for the Carolina Hurricanes, was behind the bench. The T-Birds tore up the league that year (51-10-7 record) and Warden had yet another championship. The next season he was traded to the Erie Golden Blades, where he finished his career.
But he’d found a home in North Carolina, where he remains today. Warden still follows the Huskies and keeps in touch with his teammates and other members of the Tech hockey tribe on a regular basis. The Old Dog had a great time talking to Jim, and to be honest, he gave me enough information for three columns.
In the storied history of all-time Huskies, Jim Warden is certainly high on the list. His inventory of accomplishments is very long—twice an NCAA finalist, one NCAA championship, US Olympic goalie, US World Cup goalie, assistant coach for the Huskies’ last trip to the Frozen Four, and finally, at the end of his playing days, a glorious minor league professional championship with a dominant team.
Yes, sometimes, the glory does live forever.