Phil Sykes: From Walk-On to Two-Time NCAA Champion

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Claire Weltz, Sports Editor

Phil Sykes is a two-time NCAA champion with UND’s hockey team. But Sykes grew up a 21-hour drive from Grand Forks in Dawson Creek, BC. That’s 1,293.7 miles. (About half the width of the United States or over 34,000 hockey rinks lined up.) His story both on and off the ice is vastly different than most who walk through these doors.

It was at that 1,200-mile distance that Sykes was finishing his time in Canadian junior hockey. He wanted to play college hockey, but he needed an “in.” Sykes’ father was playing old timers hockey, and his teammate mentioned a friend – “Gino” Gasparini – had recently become head coach of a team in the States. With a connection as far removed as his father’s teammate’s friend, a miscommunication originally made Sykes think he would be sending his newspaper clippings to the University of Denver. However, even after realizing Gasparini was coaching at North Dakota and not Denver, Sykes started his unique journey to stardom at UND.

Gasparini had been an assistant coach at UND and was promoted to head coach in 1978. With a new coaching staff, there would be gaps to fill in the recruiting process. Sykes was invited to UND to try out for the team as a walk-on. As a potential walk-on, he didn’t know what dorm the other players would be staying in, so he arbitrarily selected McVey Hall for his residence.

Staying in the residence halls turned out to be a major part of his UND experience. “One of my favorite memories was coming back from the rink during the try-out phase. My floor was waiting for me to hear how it went and cheering me on,” Sykes said. When Sykes earned his spot on the team and a partial scholarship, they were ecstatic. He was offered a home away from home and spent Thanksgiving in Velva, ND. Later, Sykes planned a trip home to Dawson Creek and took some of his floormates – all 1,293.7 miles.

The 1978-79 season prior to Sykes’ arrival at UND was flawed only by a loss to Minnesota in the NCAA championship game, but with a new head coach at the helm, UND hockey was looking to rebuild. “I don’t think any of us realized what was happening with that collection of players that we had,” Sykes reflected. “We were all so different, not robots. There was a balance of character and personality.”

One of Sykes’ first outings with the team was to a Grand Forks trademark – the Red Pepper. It was a Friday night, and the restaurant was messy due to the many customers. When the team finished eating, they cleaned up after themselves, and the team captains made sure they picked up some of the surrounding trash left behind by previous restaurant-goers too. “It was a testament to the team leadership, but it was also a reminder that we were in the public eye,” Sykes commented.

Phil Sykes won his first national championship in 1980 when UND defeated Northern Michigan 5-2. He was an integral part of every goal, notching one goal and four assists.

Since the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament’s inception in 1948, only 17 players have scored a hat trick in the championship game; Sykes is in those ranks. In 1982, UND won its fourth national title with the same scoreline: a 5-2 victory over Wisconsin. In his final game for Nodak, Sykes netted three goals and tallied an assist. (For context, UND is currently in a hat trick drought. Ironically, the last one came against Wisconsin too. It was Rhett Gardner in November 2018.)

Throughout his exemplary college career (98 goals and 90 assists), Sykes won several individual awards. UND’s coaching staff co-awarded him the very first Cliff “Fido” Purpur award in 1981. His highest honor was the 1982 NCAA Tournament MVP. Skip ahead to 1997, Sykes was named to the NCAA Championship 50th Anniversary Team – a list of all-time best tournament players. “I’ve been asked a million times about not being an All-American. I’ve been asked a million times about not winning the Hobey Baker.” In his defense, the Hobey Baker Award was created in 1981, and he graduated in 1982. However, Sykes emphasized UND’s locker room mentality: “North Dakota was never, ever about individual awards.”

In 1980, during Sykes’ first title-winning campaign with UND, Sykes and UND faced Canada’s, Japan’s, and Dave Christian’s United States’ Olympic Teams in exhibition matches leading up to the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid. (In the 1978-79 season prior, Sykes and Christian were teammates at UND.) Although he never became an Olympian himself, Sykes later represented Canada at the 1986 World Championship. He played nine games for his country and helped Canada win third place at the tournament.

After Team USA’s David-and-Goliath gold medal win in the 1980 Winter Olympics, the NHL opened even more to college players. Phil Sykes wasn’t drafted, but he started his road to the NHL when he signed with the New Haven Nighthawks after graduating from UND. The Nighthawks were associated with the Los Angeles Kings, and Sykes jumped between the two rosters for his first two years post-college. After he established himself in the AHL, Sykes played five seasons with the Kings before he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets in 1988. After 456 games in the NHL with 79 goals and 85 assists, Sykes retired in 1992.

Today, Phil Sykes lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area where he coaches a youth team in the area, but he still recalls his time at the University of North Dakota. “Championship teams take on an interesting lifelong bond, and I’m thankful we got to know each other and learn from each other.” The 1980 and 1982 teams connect “all the time. It’s staggering. Every single birthday. We’re always exchanging thoughts and reflections.”

When asked about his favorite memory on the ice, Sykes said that it wasn’t either of the NCAA title games. “Many people think the pinnacle is the championship, but I’ve realized that it was the work getting to the top of the mountain that mattered more than just winning.” The build-up of those winning seasons alongside the relationships with his teammates are what he treasures the most about his time at the University of North Dakota: “Being part of those days that built the hockey culture of UND today was richly rewarding, but I’m more thankful for the way I experienced college.”

Claire Weltz is a Dakota Student Sports Editor. She can be reached at [email protected]