B1G Medal of Honor Memories: Bill Baker
May 14, 2014
Link: Minnesota's Big Ten Medal of Honor Winners
The Big Ten Conference is celebrating 100 years of the Medal of Honor in 2014. Minnesota will announce its 2014 male and female winners on June 4. Until then, we will look back at some previous student-athletes who were bestowed with the Big Ten Medal of Honor, which is one of the most prestigious conference awards in college athletics. The Big Ten Medal of Honor was first awarded in 1915 to one student-athlete from the graduating class of each university who had “attained the greatest proficiency in athletics and scholastic work.” It was the first award in intercollegiate athletics to demonstrate support for the educational emphasis placed on athletics and was acclaimed throughout the nation, and in particular by the NCAA “as one of the significant gestures yet made in college sports.”
A Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient in 1979, Gopher Hockey’s Bill Baker personifies the annual award as one of the conference’s most successful alumni. The First Team All-American and former Gopher Hockey captain led Minnesota to national championships in 1976 and 1979 before helping Herb Brooks and Team USA win a gold medal at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid. One of 10 Gophers on the U.S. Olympic squad in 1980, the Grand Rapids, Minn., native played 154 games for Minnesota and tallied 118 career points. Baker went on to play more than 100 career games in the National Hockey League with the Montreal Canadiens, the Colorado Rockies, the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers. Following his playing career, Baker returned to school and now works as an oral surgeon and maxillofacial specialist. Baker was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
GopherSports.com: You’re one of just nine Minnesota men’s hockey players to win the Big Ten Medal of Honor along with Gophers like Jack McCartan, Wally Olds and Mike Polich. Looking back, what did it mean to you to win the award in 1979?
Bill Baker: Winning the Big Ten Medal of Honor was very important to me, and I certainly appreciated the recognition for my work in hockey and in school. It’s kind of funny what sticks in your mind, but I remember when I won it (long-time college hockey assistant coach) Grant Standbrook had written me a really nice letter congratulating me. It made me realize how great of an honor it really was. I think anytime you get that kind of recognition among your peers, it’s a great honor.
GS: You had the opportunity to play for the legendary Herb Brooks several times throughout your career including here at Minnesota. What was it like playing for him?
BB: I’ve always said Herbie taught me a lot about a lot of different things indirectly – just by the way he was and the way he coached. It’s not like he ever sat you down – we never really talked to him like that. That’s the most regretful part of the whole thing. We never really had the chance to know him as a person. But we knew him as a coach and what he did for us that way -- I honestly can’t thank him enough. He took me from a raw high school player and gave me a chance to win two national championships and be an All-American at Minnesota, then on to the Olympic team, and I played for him for a year in the pros too. It’s one of those things where you can’t thank someone enough for the opportunity.
GS: What’s one thing he taught you that has stayed with you all these years?
BB: The biggest thing he taught me is that you can make up for a lot of lost talent, whether it’s in hockey or any other sport or even oral surgery, if you’re willing to outwork the next guy. I think that was especially true in my case. I knew that I had to work extra hard, and he certainly made me. He taught me not to let anyone outwork me whether it was on the rink or in surgery. My dad instilled that in me and was the same way, but Herbie really reinforced that. He showed me that you can make it to the top in anything if you’re willing to work hard enough and if you really want it.
GS: As a Gopher, you helped the program to NCAA titles in 1976 and 1979, you were an All-American and a captain. What was your favorite thing about your time at the University of Minnesota?
BB: I really enjoyed my time at the University of Minnesota and getting to know the other guys. You have the opportunity to develop so many great relationships in college, and you just can’t put a price on it. It was tough going to school while playing hockey too and trying to manage your time effectively. But the most memorable part of college was the people you meet – especially the 20 other people in the locker room with you that you bond with over the years. Even outside of sports, Dr. Paul Carey works up here (in Brainerd), and I had chemistry class with him as a freshman or sophomore at Minnesota. We laugh about it when we see each other. It’s kind of fun that we’ve known each other since 1975.
GS: Do you still keep in touch with your former teammates and friends from college?
BB: Oh yeah, there’s no question. I see Phil Verchota a lot. We’re still really good friends. We were roommates for three years at Minnesota, and we still fish and hunt together -- same thing with Mike Ramsay. I see a lot of those guys here and there – Bobby Bergloff, Jim Jetland, Rob McLanahan, Neal Broten. It’s always fun to catch up with the guys from school or from the Olympic team.
GS: How much of a whirlwind was it from college at Minnesota to winning a gold medal in Lake Placid a year later?
BB: Actually, that whole time frame – like six or seven years – was amazing. In high school, we went to the state tournament in three of my four years. Then I came to Minnesota, and we won the NCAA title in 1976 and again in 1979 when I was an All-American. In 1980, I was able to play in the Olympics in Lake Placid and win a gold medal, and then I went into professional hockey. The whole time I was thinking, “Can it get any better?”. It was just an unbelievable run when you think of the odds of all that. We were working incredibly hard, but it was a lot of fun.
GS: Talk about the process of earning your roster spot on the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team and going on to play in one is widely regarded as the greatest moment in American sports history.
BB: I had actually just been admitted to dental school, so I had to make a choice between school and competing for a roster spot. There were no guarantees with hockey – Herbie wouldn’t guarantee anybody a spot on the team. There were a lot of ifs and buts, but talk about making the right choice! It was a no brainer looking back, and I’m certainly proud of the way things ended up working out.
GS: After your playing career came to an end, you came back to the University of Minnesota to continue your education and now you work as an oral surgeon. What made you choose that career path?
BB: I actually spent another nine years in school after I got done playing. I started dental school at Minnesota and ended up transferring down to Washington University in St. Louis because my wife was working there and commuting back and forth wasn’t working out very well. I knew I wanted to get into oral surgery, and I wanted to do it at the University of Minnesota because I wanted to come back. I don’t know what it is, but I have a special place in my heart for the University of Minnesota. Jim Swift was the head of the program, and I call him the Herb Brooks of oral surgery. He was the same way – hard-nosed and tough on you. I loved it – didn’t bother me a bit.
GS: Do you still a chance to play hockey from time to time?
BB: I really don’t anymore. I still work out and stay active with hunting and such, but my hockey days are pretty much behind me at this point. Maybe when I retire I’ll have some time to get back in shape and make a comeback for an old-timers game.
GS: Last one, how closely do you follow the Gopher Hockey program today?
BB: I do. I follow it really closely as do a lot of the alums. I know most of those guys pretty well, and we try to watch every weekend and stay up on it as much as we can. I don’t watch a lot of pro hockey, but I try to watch as much college hockey as I can.