LAKE ELMO, Minn. — It would be easy for former University of Minnesota Duluth defenseman Scott Perunovich to be bitter about the end of his college hockey career. Most of the previous Hobey Baker Award winners over the past four decades have gotten a big announcement at the NCAA Frozen Four with fans in attendance and a national TV audience.
Perunovich got the last part, on April 11, when ESPN anchor John Buccigross announced him becoming the sixth Bulldog to win college hockey’s highest individual honor live on SportsCenter. But it came via a Zoom call, remotely, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic that caused the cancellation of the Frozen Four and Perunovich’s quest to help UMD to a third straight NCAA title.
On Thursday, Aug. 6 at the Royal Golf Club outside of St. Paul, when the Hobey organizers held a golf outing and banquet to honor Perunovich, it was a flashback to a more normal pre-Covid world. It was also an opportunity for the Hibbing, Minn., native to take his place alongside eight former Hobey winners who were in attendance.
“It definitely makes everything more normal after everything we went through in the season,” said Perunovich, as he autographed a stack of commemorative pucks alongside Maine goalie Jeremy Swayman, one of the two runners-up for the award. “Having a banquet with friends and family and all these other people makes everything better.”
Perunovich officially signed with the St. Louis Blues last month, but cannot play for the team until next season. After a few weeks in Missouri getting to know future teammates and organization members, he has been back in Minnesota working out and spending time at his family’s lake cabin.
Another defenseman wins
While stats like goals and assists dominate hockey (and forwards have won 29 of the 40 Hobeys awarded), Perunovich is the third defenseman in the past four years to be honored with the trophy. Before hitting the golf course, former Gopher Jordan Leopold, the 2002 Hobey winner, joked that the committee has “got it right the past few years.”
“To be a defenseman and win this award is a real honor, because normally it would go to a No. 1 scorer or someone like that,” said Leopold, who is among nine defensemen to win the trophy. “They’ve been pretty respectful of defensemen lately, which I appreciate. Defensemen keep winning, which is great.”
St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson, another former UMD defenseman, was part of the recruiting process in bringing Perunovich to the Bulldogs. Larson coached him as Scott Sandelin’s top assistant in 2018, when UMD claimed its second NCAA title. On Thursday, Larson was on hand with Drew LeBlanc, who won the Hobey for the Huskies in 2013, and admitted knowing early on that Perunovich had some unique gifts.
“Having the fortune to coach him for a year was pretty special, and I could tell even that freshman year that he was a special player,” Larson said. “The only time I remember him getting mad at me was when he’d keep turning around and saying, ‘Lars, I can kill penalties too.’ I’d say, ‘we’ll save that for later and keep you on the power play.’”
While the NHL playoffs have begun, the league is not allowing recently-signed players like Perunovich to skate in the 2020 postseason. But he still took some time to skate with the Blues prior to the team heading to Edmonton to defend their Stanley Cup. Blues veteran Ryan O’Reilly, the playoff MVP in the team’s run to the 2019 title, took Perunovich and another Blues rookie on a golf outing.
On Thursday, the newest Hobey winner was playing golf with his parents, Jim and Susan, and said without reservations that his mother is the best golfer in the family. The drive for a third NCAA title ended abruptly, and the Hobey announcement was a unique one. But on a sunny afternoon in the summer, with a job on one of the NHL’s best rosters to strive for, Scott Perunovich admitted all was well in his world.
“It’s definitely not a bad spot to be in,” he said. “I’m pretty excited about the future.”