Photo: UMD Bulldogs Athletics/ Terry Cartie Norton
We’ve all heard the stories of the undersized players making it big: Steph Curry for Davidson and then Golden State, Spud Webb in Atlanta, Martin St. Louis in Tampa, and then New York, most recently Tarik Cohen for the Chicago Bears. We hear about how they “overcame the odds” despite being what scouts and everyone deemed as being too small to play the sport at the level needed to be successful.
However, we don’t always hear about how the years of the naysaying can adversely impact a young athlete.
Scott Perunovich decided not to let the negativity effect him. Instead he used it as motivation.
“Growing up from Pee-Wee to Bantams, people told me that I was too small, what I was doing wasn’t going to work at the next level,” Perunovich said. “Then from bantams to high school people said the same thing, then to juniors, then people in Cedar Rapids told me it wasn’t going to work at the college level. I’ve taken that negativity and used it for determination.”
Having been described as a “late bloomer” by multiple publications as well as scouts, the 5-foot-9, 172 pound Perunovich says he agrees with that sentiment.
“I went to a smaller school in northern Minnesota, and I wasn’t a big name there,” Perunovich said. “I do believe that I was a late bloomer. I had a rough year at Cedar Rapids. My coaches here at UMD really helped me to turn the page and help me get ready for the next level in college hockey. I definitely bloomed my freshman year of college hockey, and a lot of that credit goes to my coaches and teammates.”
And turn the page he has. Perunovich was drafted by the St. Louis Blues with the No. 45 overall pick in the 2018 draft, he helped to lead the Bulldogs to a National Championship last year, and is in the conversation for this year’s Hobey Baker Award, having tallied 17 points (2G-15) in 14 games thus far this year. Despite all of the accolades, and a terrific freshman year in Duluth, he says the award doesn’t cross his mind often.
“That’s definitely an honor, I try not to think about that too much,” Perunovich said. “I didn’t get a lot of recognition when I was younger whether it be the draft, or anything like that, but it definitely feels special now and it makes me work that much harder.”
Born and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, Perunovich says that growing up in the hockey-rich atmosphere helped him to develop as a player.
“Hibbing has always been a big hockey town. There’s been some good players coming out of there. It was a super connected area, and that contributed to me growing up.”
Despite currently playing for UMD, Perunovich didn’t grow up wanting to go to North Minnesota, he wanted to go to another famed Minnesota school.
“I was a huge Gopher fan growing up actually,” Perunovich admitted with a laugh. “Growing up, Minnesota was a powerhouse. Things started to change though, with Coach (Scott) Sandelin coming in to coach at UMD. He’s done a great job of changing the culture here and helping this program become a powerhouse in its own right. This has become a place where people want to play because of the coaches and how they’ve turned everything around.”
Perunovich’s uncle, Doug Torrel, captained the UMD Bulldogs as a senior in 1991-1992, and he says he has gone to him for advice over the course of his young career.
“He was drafted and was a captain here, and I stayed in touch with him throughout the recruiting process. He’s also given me numerous tips which I’ve used at each level, so he’s been a great resource to have.”
His uncle’s advice has helped Perunovich lead the Bulldogs to a national championship win last year, despite many saying the Bulldogs squad was too young.
“Coming into last year, I think a lot of people wrote us off,” Perunovich said. “Some people thought we were in the rebuilding stage. We had a lot of young guys, but we never looked at the year as a year to be building for the next year. We didn’t listen to what the critics and what the writers said about us, that we needed a year to develop. We took every day in stride and we got better as the year went on. Eventually, it ended up not being about a rebuilding year, and more about a national championship.”
Even though many had written the Bulldogs off, Perunovich insisted that their goal from the very start was to achieve what they achieved in the end.
“At the beginning of the year, no matter who you’re playing for, or how good you think you’re going to be, your goal is always to win a national championship,” Perunovich said. “The coaching we have though could turn a sub-par team and turn them into a team that could be competitive at playoff time. No matter who we have, we will have a shot at winning a national championship.”
The 2017-2018 season ended up being a big one for Perunovich. He not only helped the Bulldogs win bring home a national championship that season, but he was also selected for the World Juniors roster for Team USA. However, leaving in the middle of the college season to head to Buffalo wasn’t the easiest thing for Perunovich, though having teammates around definitely helped.
“Having my UMD roommate Dylan Samberg in Buffalo, helped me a lot. We hung out a lot there, and I was able to spend time off the ice with him and my other UMD teammates too.”
On the ice however, Perunovich felt at home playing in the red, white and blue, and he said he learned a lot from the experience.
“The pace there was super high,” Perunovich said. “A lot of the guys that I got to play with and against went high in the draft this past year, and some are playing the NHL too, so I just got to experience the competitiveness. That helped me a lot, and it was a great experience on and off the ice.”
Scott Perunovich has demonstrated through all of these accomplishments that sometimes it really can pay not to listen to your critics, to those wise ones with years of experience covering a sport. They may know a lot but they can never know what’s in someone’s heart. It just never occurred to Scott Perunovich that he was too small to make it.