By Matt Wellens
DULUTH, Minn. — In 1984, Minnesota Duluth senior defenseman Tom Kurvers was a longshot to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.
Kurvers, who will be inducted into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame this week, was up against North Dakota senior goalie Jon Casey of Grand Rapids, the nation’s leading goal scorer in Western Michigan senior forward Dan Dorian and the nation’s top point-getter in Ohio State senior Paul Pooley.
“I was taken advantage of,” the now-retired Pates said in an email confirming the story.
“That’s still a standing joke today,” Sertich said with a chuckle.
While Pates should feel bad about getting hustled out of $5, he shouldn’t feel bad about doubting Kurvers’ chances to win the Hobey. It was a win that few predicted, with Kurvers’ own assistant coach needing some inside information to make the bet and Kurvers’ mom, Julie, telling Pates after the ceremony, “As his mother, I certainly felt he deserved the award, but I was absolutely surprised.”
There was one person, however, who had Kurvers as the Hobey winner months before the Bulldogs ever left for Lake Placid to take part in what is now known as the Frozen Four. It was Kurvers’ defensive partner and roommate in 1983-84, Norm Maciver.
“We were hot out of the gate after Christmastime and we had a couple good weekends,” Kurvers said, recalling the first time he thought about winning. “I remember Norm saying to me, ‘You’re going to win that award.’ ”
Kurvers, who came to UMD in 1980 as a 17-year-old out of Bloomington Jefferson High School, wasn’t even the leading scorer at UMD as a senior, despite putting up 76 points off 18 goals and 58 assists. The leading scorer was sophomore forward Bill Watson, who won the award the next year as a junior after posting 35 goals and 51 assists as a sophomore.
The Hobey Baker Memorial Award isn’t a scoring title, though. The criteria goes beyond simple on-ice accomplishments. As Pates wrote from Lake Placid, the award also includes strength of character on an off the ice, scholastic achievement, sportsmanship and aspirations.
What really put Kurvers over the top in 1983-84 to make him the fourth recipient of the Hobey, and the first of five Bulldogs to win it, was his character, Sertich said.
“I always thought if my sons grew up to be like Tom Kurvers, I would be a successful dad. He meant that much to me as a player on our team,” Sertich said of his ’83-84 captain.
“I think (the Hobey Baker committee) realized his leadership ability. He was an outstanding student. He was very good in the community. Everything I ever asked those guys to do, they did. That was part of the whole story. They endeared themselves to the community during a time when the community needed something to grab onto. Tommy was the captain and the leader of the whole thing. That was very obvious to a lot of people outside of Duluth. This kid is pretty special.”
Kurvers’ strong character comes from his family, Sertich said.
“His dad was very successful as an athlete. He probably had a good fundamental idea of what it took to be a Division I athlete,” Sertich said. “His mother was a strength for him. The combination of the direction of his parents and siblings, I think was very, very important in his development.”
Tom’s father, Jim, who now lives in Arizona, was a multi-sport athlete in high school at Hopkins. In addition to being an all-state football player and four-year letter-winner in baseball, Jim was a member of the powerhouse Hopkins basketball teams that won state titles in 1952 and 1953.
Tom Kurvers said his dad knew how to be a good sports parent because he was an athlete himself. Jim Kurvers was supportive, but also knew when to be quiet. He was demanding of his children’s effort and commitment to the game, but didn’t toss in any “extra junk.”
Meanwhile, Julie Kurvers, who passed away in January 2018, instilled grit and defiance into Tom and his four siblings.
“You get into any sport at the collegiate level and there are a lot of challenges there. There’s a lot of ways for everything to crash and burn,” said Tom Kurvers. “For me, the home I grew up in was a huge factor for any athletic success I had.”
After UMD, Kurvers played for seven different teams over 11 seasons in the NHL, starting with the Montreal Canadiens, who he won a Stanley Cup with in 1985-86. He was traded three times — from Montreal to the Buffalo Sabres in ’86-87, from Buffalo to the New Jersey Devils before the ’87-88 season and again at the start of the ’89-90 campaign to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Scott Niedermayer.
He played one season with the Vancouver Canucks in ’90-91, three with the New York Islanders from 1991-94 and finally a single season with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in ’94-95.
But the NHL career of Jim and Julie’s middle child didn’t end there. After playing in the NHL, he’s spent the past 20-plus years as a scout and executive in the league.
His first 11 were with the Arizona Coyotes as a radio analyst, professional scout and then director of player personnel. The next 10 were with the Tampa Bay Lightning as assistant general manager and then senior advisor to the general manager. In June he became the assistant general manager of the Minnesota Wild.
Sertich said he always knew the path Kurvers was on in hockey. His captain always has been thorough in everything he does. Kurvers has a great eye, not just for talented hockey players, but for ones that have the necessary character to be a pro, Sertich said.
“It reflects on his upbringing and the types of values he has,” Sertich said. “That more than anything was very apparent. He looks at a player that’s a really good player, but what’s his character? That is something sometimes a person as a scout or a coach gets in trouble for because you take some risks on a recruit, (and) they may come back to bite you.”
In addition to being a man of strong character, Kurvers was pretty skilled, as well.
He also had something else that separated him from the rest.
“His vision, his passing skills, were elite,” Maciver said. “He had tremendous patience with the puck.”
“He had good vision,” said former UMD goaltender Bob Mason, who played two seasons with Kurvers at UMD from 1981-83 and again with Vancouver in ’90-91. “He could see the ice. He was smart. He had pretty good tools.”
Added Sertich: “His skill level was really high. That, with the vision and the intellect of the game, propelled him to the National Hockey League.”
Did anyone mention vision?
Yeah, Kurvers had that for sure as a player, said Mason, the longtime Wild goaltending coach who is once again a teammate of Kurvers’. It’s an attribute you either have or you don’t, said Mason, who can attest that Kurvers still has it to this day as an executive.
“He remembers a lot of plays that happen,” Mason said of the postgame chats between the Wild coaching staff and front office. “There are a lot of small, little details that the normal person wouldn’t see, and we’re talking about all these little plays that may have happened or may not have happened. He’s right in there. He sees what everyone is doing, whether it’s good or bad, if (a player) stays with his check or has his head up, if he’s making the right play. He sees all that and brings it down. Some nights, it seems we discuss that a lot more after losses, but he brings that down and relays it to coaches. He’s a good guy to have around for that reason.”
Like Kurvers, Maciver is an assistant general manager in the NHL, a position he’s held with the Chicago Blackhawks since 2013.
While rivals, they’re still close friends who converse regularly. Like Mason, Maciver continues to see in Kurvers as an executive what he saw in him as a player.
“His vision both on and off the ice, he’s very cerebral. He’s very intelligent,” Maciver said. “He thinks things through. The one thing about Tom is he asks a lot of questions. It’s not that he has all the answers. He’s very inquisitive. He likes to ask a lot of questions, he likes to converse with people he really respects in the game.
“He’s just got this insatiable appetite to learn and to be a better person, a better executive, a better player. That has carried him throughout his career.”
Those qualities also have carried Kurvers through his latest challenge in life. At 56 years old, Kurvers was diagnosed in January with adenocarcinoma — a small-cell lung cancer that had spread into his lymph nodes and sternum. It was inoperable, but Kurvers said he caught a break when his type of cancer matched with an oral chemotherapy drug on the market.
The drug makes him tired at times, so he needs to nap, but other than that he said he feels good.
“My treatment is going very well,” said Kurvers, who lost his mother to cancer. “My first set of scans after eight weeks on the meds were very positive, very good results. My bloodwork and lab — I’ve been in every three weeks — they’ve come back strong. We feel like we have momentum. I feel good.”
Kurvers took a leave of absence from the Wild after being diagnosed, but recently returned to work. He said, “I got my traveling training wheels back on a couple weeks ago” to go watch the Iowa Wild beat the Milwaukee Admirals in a first-round American Hockey League playoff series. He caught all five games in Des Moines and Milwaukee. He was in Des Moines again last week for Games 2 and 3 of the second-round series against the Chicago Wolves. He returned to the Twin Cities this weekend for meetings, but plans to be in Chicago for Game 6 on Monday. The Wild are down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Kurvers said he’s trying to be cautious with his return to work, but being around hockey again has provided an added boost to his recovery.
“You don’t realize the connections you have in the game, then the rug is pulled a little bit,” Kurvers said. “Even in the morning (Wednesday), just sitting in (coach) Tim Army’s office. We have a real good banter. We’ve developed that in six months together. You’re not doing much, but you’re chewing on things, whether it’s short term for the game that night or long term for the roster next year, or travel plans or whatever it might be for the team. That’s what we do. You’re doing what you’re supposed to do.
“You have to take some time when you’re faced with this and figure out what you’re dealing with. I’ve done that and now the treatment is going well. The care and support and love is all there from family, friends, the hockey world. It continues to be a source of strength. I’ve been the recipient now and I am thankful for that. I’ll be able to help others down the line when they have to face this. It’s all around us. Everybody knows that. I’m part of the crew that has to face the challenge, and we’re doing a good job of it.”
DECC Athletic Hall of Fame
What: 27th induction ceremony
When: Thursday, May 16
Where: DECC Horizon Room
Inductees: Bob Davidson, Willard Ikola, Tom Kurvers, Lori Ogren, Mark Sertich, William Wirtanen
Schedule: Social hour, 6 p.m.; dinner, 7 p.m.; awards presentations, 7:30 p.m.
Guest speaker: Olympic ski jumper Jim Denney
Tickets: $40, DECC ticket office (218-727-4344)