The Sandelin family has plenty to be happy
not even counting the Bulldogs' success
Sandelin is Inside College Hockey's 2003-04 Coach of the Year.
three minutes remained in the Midwest Regional title game, and
Minnesota Duluth held a two-goal lead over arch-rival Minnesota,
when the arena’s sound system blasted a tune that neatly
sums up so much about Bulldog hockey.
be singing, when we’re winning. We’ll be singing …
I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna
keep me down …” sang a quickly-forgotten group named
Chumbawamba. If Wendy Sandelin was signing along from her seat
in section 123, it would’ve been perfectly appropriate.
fans in the Twin Ports are witnessing an amazing comeback –
with their team going from last in the WCHA to the Frozen Four
in four years – one cannot fully comprehend the comeback
story of Minnesota Duluth hockey without knowing about the Sandelin
family, and Bulldog hockey’s most miraculous comeback. But
it could be seen clearly in that section of Van Andel Arena, as
Wendy and her five-year-old son, Ryan, cheered, yelled and cried
for the team, and for their husband and father, Scott, who was
directing traffic from his perch behind the Bulldogs bench.
Early in 1998-99
season, a little more than a year before Scott was named the Bulldogs’
head coach, the Sandelins were enjoying one of the most exciting
times of their lives, living in Grand Forks while Scott served
as the assistant coach for the top college hockey team in the
nation that season, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Wendy –
then 30 – was pregnant with the couple’s first child,
and all seemed right with the world on the eastern North Dakota
But on a Friday
afternoon in early November, all of that changed. Wendy has a
nursing degree from Penn State, and her medical background told
her something might be amiss when she discovered a lump on one
of her breasts. She underwent an examination, and during a visit
to the doctor’s office, the Sandelins learned that their
child was healthy, but Wendy had breast cancer.
got the news at about four o’clock, and two hours later
I was at the rink for a game against Clarkson,” said Scott.
“Complete shock. It was one of those moments where you kind
of go numb.”
the time as “a blur,” Scott admits that he watched
the games from a different perspective, and was probably more
focused on hockey while the game was going on than ever before.
Wendy’s doctors immediately performed a mastectomy (which
involves surgical removal of a breast). After waiting eight weeks
to make sure the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, they
induced labor a week prior to her due date.
3, 1999, Ryan Sandelin was born on a Sunday while the Sioux were
hosting Notre Dame. Scott and Wendy’s son was perfectly
healthy, save for one small issue.
only problem was he was crying when he was born because we got
beat by Notre Dame that night,” Scott joked. “I had
the radio on and was following the game – Wendy didn’t
know that. But Ryan got to learn to not like to lose right away.”
there was little time for post-natal relaxation. Shortly after
Ryan’s birth, she began four months of intensive chemotherapy.
While the support she received from Scott, their families, and
the entire Sioux hockey community was helpful, she admits that
it was a trying time, physically and emotionally. Wendy underwent
reconstructive surgery to normalize her outward appearance, but
dealt with a sense of disfigurement commonly felt by mastectomy
patients. And the chemotherapy caused complete hair loss. In keeping
with her seemingly always-sunny approach to life, Wendy says the
baldness brought about a striking resemblance between her and
her infant son.
bald, and so was Ryan,” she joked. “We were like Me
up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., and met Scott while
she was working as a nurse and he was playing for the Hershey
(Pa.) Bears of the AHL. She’d gone to college in a relatively
small town, and had followed Scott to playing and coaching stints
in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Fargo, N.D., so the Sandelins knew something
about close-knit communities. It was in their time of need that
winter and spring that they felt Greater Grand Forks rally around
all of it, Dean (Blais) was great and the people in Grand Forks
were very supportive,” said Scott. Dealing with a crisis
was nothing new to people in Grand Forks by 1999. The Sandelins
had been there in 1997, and had lived through the devastating
floods that spring, learning to cope and to recover with their
was barely a year old, Minnesota Duluth released coach Mike Sertich
late in his 18th season in charge of the Bulldog program. A national
search was conducted, and Scott’s name made the list of
finalists to replace Sertich. After a second round of interviews,
Scott was offered the job. Despite their affection for the people
in Grand Forks and the success the Sioux had with Scott at Blais'
side, something about the move to Duluth felt right to the Sandelins.
the job came up, he was ready to take it,” said Wendy, who
had gotten a masters’ degree in nursing at North Dakota
during their time in Grand Forks. “I’d finished my
treatment and it seemed to us like the right time to try something
new” took a little while to feel like “something better,”
at least during that challenging first winter in Duluth. While
the Sioux won the MacNaughton Cup and made it to the NCAA title
game that year, the Bulldogs went a dismal 7-28-4 during Scott’s
first season at the helm.
was a big change,” said Wendy, who works as a nurse anesthetist
at a Duluth hospital. “We went from UND which had won a
title and had full houses every night, to the DECC, where there
wasn’t a lot of interest in the Bulldogs at the time. It
was pretty quiet in there that first year.”
later, it’s been plenty noisy inside the DECC, and on the
road for the Bulldogs. There was a lot of noise at Van Andel after
UMD beat Minnesota that Sunday afternoon in Grand Rapids, to get
to the Frozen Four. But Scott stayed true to his reserved nature
as he calmly answered questions from the media at post-game press
conference. Sitting in the back row, behind the reporters, were
a smiling blonde nurse and a five-year-old mini-mite, who could
barely contain their glee.
questions about beating Minnesota and how they’ll try to
beat Denver at the FleetCenter, Scott looked past the reporters
to those smiling faces in the back row, and got a reminder of
how far he, his team, and his family have come in five years.
coaches, we get so caught up in the season, and I’m still
bad that way,” Scott said afterward. “But I always
go back to that time five years ago and realize that it is a game,
and winning and losing is certainly part of it, but your family
is what really matters.”