Legendary coach John Wooden said “winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.” WIAA started sponsoring a hockey state championship in 1971. Since 1971, Superior, Madison Memorial and Hudson are the only schools to repeat as state champions.
Superior, WIAA champs in 1996, ’95 & ’94, is the only school to win three consecutive WIAA state championships. In addition, Superior was runner-up in ‘93, champs in ‘92, runner-up in ‘91 and champs in ’90. Under the leadership of two different head coaches, Dick Torrence and David Kukowski, Superior Spartans were in the WIAA state championship game an astonishing seven consecutive seasons.
In November, 1993 Superior boys’ hockey started the season with second year head coach, David Kukowski. The prior season ended in the WIAA championship game with a heartbreaking overtime loss to Antigo. For the next three seasons, Superior was undefeated in WIAA playoffs and state tournaments. That is a remarkable accomplishment. Let’s look at highlights of Superior’s spectacular three-peat.
In 1994 WIAA State, Superior was not the favorite. They had a regular season record with more losses than wins and an offense led by underclassmen. However, they won state by defeating Northland Pines 5-4, SPASH 3-0, and in the title game survived Madison Memorial 4-3. Madison Memorial head coach, Vic Levine, shared with me “We had the lead and were in control, but Superior scored really late on a shot that deflected off a skate, I believe, to tie the game. Superior won in double OT.” Superior defenseman Matt Ross scored in overtime with an assist from sophomore, Tom Nelson.
In 1995 WIAA State, Superior was defending state champs and played a regular season schedule against Minnesota’s top teams. They played Minnesota Class AA state champ Duluth East twice and Warroad with senior, future NHL player, Wyatt Smith. Superior was battle-hardened from a grueling schedule. They cruised past SPASH 6-1, came from behind to beat a gritty Eau Claire North team 2-1, and defeated Fond du Lac 4-1 for the title. Chris Buesgen, junior on the ’95 team told me, “Everyone remembers Tom Nelson and Trent Clark, but Andrew Wojciechowski, Andy Torzewski and Mark Liebert as seniors and captains provided us with great leadership.”
In 1996 WIAA State, Superior arrived without allowing a Wisconsin team to score on them, as two-time defending champs and clearly the team to beat. Prior to WIAA State, Superior had only played six Wisconsin high school teams and won by a combined score of 46-0. Most of their regular season schedule was against Minnesota’s finest, including Warroad’s holiday tournament. The team jogged from their hotel to the Warroad rink in a snowstorm to get warmed-up. Superior made Wisconsin proud as they beat Minnesota Class A state champ, Warroad, in front of a loud and raucous crowd.
Despite blowing out Wisconsin teams all season, Superior faced stiff competition in each state tournament game. They defeated Hudson 2-0, Madison Memorial 3-2, and SPASH 1-0 for the WIAA championship. Madison Memorial was the only Wisconsin team to score a goal against Superior.
Five of Superior’s seniors from the ’96 championship team played NCAA hockey. Tom Nelson played for UMD Bulldogs, Trent Clark at Colorado College, and Nate Cockerham, Chad Matushak and Tom Pink for hometown UW-Superior.
During my conversation with Coach David Kukowski, the only coach to lead a team to three straight WIAA championships, he gave credit to everyone but himself. It was refreshing to speak with someone so humble that acknowledged the hard work of everyone other than himself. Those characteristics were likely significant contributors to Superior’s success during his tenure.
If it takes talent to win a championship and character to repeat, what does it take to win three consecutively? Tom Nelson shared with me “we had a talented team, but what was really special is we were all friends. We played squirt through high school together and everybody cared about each other. We were a real team; 3rd and 4th line guys didn’t complain about ice, everybody knew their role, worked hard and contributed for the team.”
It was a magical run for Superior. We can all learn a life lesson about teamwork from a group of teenagers that played hockey together in the 1990’s.