DECADE OF DOMINANCE: Since opening Ralph Engelstad Arena, Sioux hockey continues to soar nationallyThe best Christmas present ever for the UND men’s hockey program came in 1998. That’s when — a few days before the holiday — Ralph Engelstad came to Grand Forks to announce plans to finance an arena that would be looked upon as the best in the country.
By: Brad Elliott Schlossman, Grand Forks Herald
The best Christmas present ever for the UND men’s hockey program came in 1998. That’s when — a few days before the holiday — Ralph Engelstad came to Grand Forks to announce plans to finance an arena that would be looked upon as the best in the country.
During the next few months, architects would design a new rink that would be dubbed The Palace on the Prairie. Construction started within a year.
Officials picked out the best part of arenas around the country and put them all together to build Ralph Engelstad Arena.
It opened as an 11,640-seat arena, but got there in a roundabout way.
At first, Engelstad suggested that it seat 15,000 people. Others close to him thought that was far too much of an increase from the 6,000-seat old venue. They suggested the arena seat 8,000.
Although they compromised, there were strong enough feelings that UND wouldn’t be able to fill the new venue that they constructed it in a way that the lights could be turned off on the upper deck to make it feel like a full house even when it was not.
Filling the arena was never a problem, though.
The arena was sold out for 15 of 17 home dates in the opening season., and it has averaged more than 11,000 fans every year since. For the past four years, it has averaged better than a sellout.
“As it turned out,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said, “11,600 is probably ideal when you think of the atmosphere we now have in this building. You can’t imagine it being any different.”
A RECRUITING COUP
The building would play a large role in recruiting, too.
The Sioux coaching staff started taking recruits through it during construction phase. Once the arena was finished, it made for some interesting stories.
“At times, it was tough to get a read on young players and their families when we would bring them through on a tour,” said Hakstol, who was an assistant at the time. “We would be walking a player through and things would be real quiet for an hour, hour-and-a-half tour. Brad (Berry) and I would look at each other like, ‘Is this young man and his family not enjoying it? Are they not impressed?’
“What we came to find out — after this happened several times — is that the player was just speechless. They were in awe their first time through the building. That’s what we were finding out. Recruits loved what they saw. They were just in awe and maybe a little intimidated by the building.”
Several players have committed to UND while standing in the building.
It first happened on opening night, Oct. 5, 2001.
The Sioux lost to rival Minnesota 7-5, but won the country’s biggest recruiting battle when visitor Zach Parise gave a verbal commitment to UND. As it turns out, Parise may be the most influential player to wear a Sioux jersey in the last decade.
His commitment helped give credibility to UND as a place to go for high-end players. That was especially the case when it became public that legendary Minnesota coach Herb Brooks advised Parise to go to UND.
“I told him, since he was the best player, he needed to go to school with the best tradition, facilities and coaching staff,” Brooks later told the Herald’s Virg Foss.
Other top-end players followed Parise.
In the first 55 years of the program, UND had six first-round picks. In the seven years since Parise arrived on campus, there have been nine first-round picks at UND.
“I came to opening night against the Gophers,” Parise said. “It was a pretty special night. Going in, I didn’t want to get too caught up with the opening of the rink. I talked to a lot of different people who I respected in the hockey community and they all said North Dakota was the best place. They played the best style of hockey and the facility and everything was great. After the game, I told coach (Dean) Blais that I wanted to play for him.
“It ended up being perfect there. It was unbelievable. With the arena and the ice time that’s available to you and the great weight room. . . it is a good spot to go and develop as a player. The way they coach and the way they play is the most similar to the NHL, too. Now, I talk to guys who went to other schools and they all tell me how much they hated playing against North Dakota, because they knew it was going to be such a tough game.”
THE SHATTUCK ST. MARY’S CONNECTION
Parise was an icon at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School, where he led the Sabres to a national midget major championship. He immediately started trying to get his Shattuck friends to join him at UND. Since then, fourteen Shattuck players have gone to UND.
“It’s a simple fact that Zach Parise went there and they all followed Zach,” Shattuck coach Tom Ward said. “Zach had a great experience there and the rest is history.”
During Parise’s freshman year, one Shattuck player who became interested in UND was a 15-year-old named Sidney Crosby. The Hockey News had already run a story proclaiming that Crosby could be the next Wayne Gretzky, launching an intense spotlight on him.
In November 2002, during Parise’s freshman year, Crosby made an unofficial visit to UND. He watched the Sioux sweep a series against Alaska-Anchorage. UND didn’t land Crosby. He opted for Canadian major juniors instead of college.
But the kid who carpooled with Crosby on that trip did commit to the Fighting Sioux. That kid was Ryan Duncan, who later became UND’s second Hobey Baker Award winner.
Other Shattuck recruits include NHLers Jonathan Toews, Drew Stafford, Taylor Chorney, Matt Smaby, Chris Porter and Brady Murray.
Jordan Parise, Brad Miller, David Toews, Ben Blood, Brett Bruneteau and two-year captain Chay Genoway are all Shattuck graduates as well.
“From my standpoint, I wanted to get those guys there, because I knew how good they were,” Parise said. “I knew they were good players and good people. Good players want to play with good players. It was a no-brainer trying to get those guys to come up there.”
The Shattuck players have been great leaders as well. Five of the last six years, UND’s captain has been a Shattuck graduate: Smaby (2005-06), Porter (2006-07), Duncan (2008-09), Genoway (2009-10) and Genoway (2010-11). Toews and Chorney also served as alternate captains.
“Zach Parise started the trend and a lot of great players have followed,” Hakstol said. “Mentality-wise, a lot of those guys are very focused and drive. It’s a good, natural fit.”
UND currently has a verbal commitment from one Shattuck product — forward Miles Koules, who has since moved to the U.S. National Team Development Program.
When Koules committed to UND last summer, he told the Herald: “I went to Shattuck for three years and it’s kind of like a tradition there. A lot of the great players from Shattuck go to North Dakota, like Zach Parise and Jonny Toews. I made it my goal to get there.”
Ward isn’t surprised.
“The Shattuck guys, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing, are all birds of the feather,” he said. “There are specific things they all have in common. They have a comfort level in regards to the model at North Dakota and it has been an easy transition for them.”
THE RALPH COMES ALIVE
Despite the sellouts, the transition to Ralph Engelstad Arena had its awkward moments.
There were complaints about the students standing and blocking the views of the season-ticket holders, who preferred to sit during the game. There were complaints about the band getting stashed in the corner of the upper deck, where nobody could hear it.
It all added up to a place that didn’t have the same intimidating atmosphere as the old Ralph Engelstad Arena, where the Sioux had so much success.
In the arena’s first season, a freshman-loaded UND squad went 7-9-1 at home. It was the first time UND had posted a losing record at home since 1993-94.
UND and staff at the arena continued to make adjustments to improve the atmosphere and make things come alive. Then, in a first-round Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff series against the University of Denver in 2002-03, it finally happened.
The Sioux were on the bubble of making the NCAA tournament. If they got swept, they were out of the tournament for sure. If they lost in three games, they would remain on the bubble. If they won the series, they knew they were in.
“Our season was on the line that week, no question,” Hakstol said.
Denver won the first game 4-1, putting UND’s backs against the wall.
In the second game, the Pioneers took a 2-1 lead with 5:37 to go. UND got a late power play and coach Blais pulled goalie Jake Brandt for a six-on-four advantage. When Brandon Bochenski scored to tie the game, the building erupted.
Just 46 seconds into overtime, Bochenski scored again and the crowd went wild.
“It was loud and crazy,” Brandt said. “I remember after the goal, I raced out and slid on my back. Because it happened right after the Zambonis were out there, the ice was slick and I slid for like a mile.
“I tried to do it again the next night, too, but the ice wasn’t as slick so it didn’t work as well.”
The next night, it went to overtime again. Grand Forks Central’s Nick Fuher ended it with a blast from the point late in the overtime session to send UND to the WCHA Final Five.
“That weekend stands out with a glaring spotlight on it,” Hakstol said. “That was the night that this became a hockey rink again. That was when The Ralph became The Ralph.
“At first, I think the fans had a similar reaction to our recruits. They were in awe. We had a lot of new people in the building and everything was so different. But that night, this became one of the greatest atmospheres in college hockey again. The spirit of the old rink jumped into this rink on that particular weekend and it has been building ever since.”
THE HIGH FLYING ACT
UND lost to Ferris State in the first round of the 2002-03 NCAA tournament, but returned the next year with high hopes.
Parise, who took the country by storm with 61 points as a freshman, was back. So was Bochenski, who piled up 35 goals as a sophomore. They would go on to be Hobey Baker Award finalists.
The season started with excitement. UND beat Minnesota-Duluth in the Hall of Fame game, then scored four consecutive goals to rally past Boston College. The Sioux earned their first sweep of Minnesota in the new building and they were 18-2-2 at one point.
Minnesota-Duluth, however, was in the driver’s seat to win the MacNaughton Cup when the Sioux traveled to the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center with two weeks left in the season.
Duluth entered the series on a 14-game unbeaten streak and with 37 points in the standings. UND had 35 points. The Bulldogs needed just one win in the series to clinch the WCHA championship, so the MacNaughton Cup was in the building.
“We knew if they beat us, it was over,” forward Erik Fabian said.
In the first game, Fuher scored twice to put the Sioux up 3-1 after two periods. David Lundbohm iced the game with a shorthanded goal in the third. Brandt won his third straight game in goal by stopping 22 of 23 shots and holding eventual Hobey Baker winner Junior Lessard off the score sheet.
While Lundbohm and Brandt were talking to the media after the first game, coach Blais told the players when they needed to meet in the lobby the next morning to go to the DECC for morning skate.
Lundbohm and Brandt, road roommates, figured it was at the same time as the previous day. So they went out to breakfast with their parents, then showed up in the lobby 10 minutes early. The only problem was that nobody was there.
The players panicked and dashed through the skyways of downtown Duluth to the DECC. The team was there practicing, but the players couldn’t get in because the doors were locked. They walked back to the hotel.
“Blais was not happy,” Brandt said. “It was a huge game on the line and two guys who played a key role the night before were M.I.A. When they got back, our cell phones were ringing off the hook. ‘What they heck are you doing missing a team meeting?’”
Lundbohm and Brandt were called to a meeting in Blais’ room. When they got there, two chairs were pulled out for them to sit on. The three coaches were on the other side.
Blais wasn’t having it, though. He told the players they were being benched because they missed the meeting. Lundbohm apologized, pleaded and begged, but Blais didn’t budge.
“You missed a team function,” Blais said. “You don’t play if you miss a team function.”
Although the players had agreed that the senior Lundbohm would do all the talking, Brandt snapped.
“Something struck me,” he said. “I was playing the best hockey of my life. I needed to be in the net that night. I told Blais, ‘That’s bologna. My freshman year, Andy Kollar missed the bus on a trip to Mankato and had to meet us in Alexandria. He played both games.’ I was steaming. I guarantee you the coaches would remember that.”
Blais decided to leave it up to a team vote and the team decided that Lundbohm and Brandt would play. Brandt ended up stopping 27 of 28 shots, leading UND to a 2-1 victory. The next day at practice, Blais congratulated the team on the great weekend.
“You guys went into a hostile building and took the MacNaughton Cup from them,” Blais said. “But you guys all missed the real show that weekend.”
Blais asked Hakstol and Berry to replicate Brandt’s tirade for the team, but they said they couldn’t touch it.
“Duluth only had to beat us once,” Parise said. “They had the MacNaughton Cup there and we swept them. That was an unbelievable weekend of hockey — one of my best memories.”
The MacNaughton Cup went back down U.S. Highway 2 to Grand Forks, where the Sioux celebrated with it after sweeping Michigan Tech. UND swept Tech again in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and advanced to a classic championship game against Minnesota. The Gophers won a shootout 5-4.
UND entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. After beating Holy Cross, the Sioux took on Denver. The game went scoreless deep into the third period, when Luke Fulghum’s shot on a rush deflected off of a Sioux defenseman’s stick and past goalie Jordan Parise. The game ended 1-0.
“We were a better team than Denver,” Parise said. “We beat them all year. It was one of those games were (Denver goalie Adam) Berkhoel was in a zone. He was great from that game all the way through the championship. That’s the unfortunate part about college hockey. We easily could have beat them in a two-of-three series, but it’s a one-game series.”
THE END OF AN ERA
After the game, Parise received a call from the New Jersey Devils — the team that drafted him in the first round. The Devils let Parise know they wanted to sign him.
With an NHL lockout looming, it was well-known that entry-level contracts would be scaled back whenever the new collective bargaining agreement was signed.
“It all happened so quickly,” Parise said. “We lost and I got a call the next day. It’s tough when you’re a kid and you have all that money waved in front of your face. With the lockout coming and all the rumors that the entry-level contracts were going to take the biggest hits, my agent and I felt it was a good time to go.”
Parise said he regrets that decision, though.
“I wish I would have stayed in college for another year,” he said. “It was not a fun year in the minors. Our team was not very good. You still keep in touch with all of the guys and they were all having a blast. They went all the way to the championship that year. I wish I would have been a part of it.”
Parise wasn’t the only one to leave. His linemate, Bochenski, also signed with the Ottawa Senators and turned pro.
And the big shocker: Blais left UND to become an associate coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I was working hockey camp that week,” Fabian said, “and I was at Walsh Hall in the morning. I went to have breakfast and I got down to the lobby and coach Blais was sitting there. I thought something must have been seriously wrong. What was coach Blais doing in Walsh Hall?
“He asked me to sit down and told me he was leaving and going to Columbus. I was one of the first people he told. Hak later called a team meeting and told the rest of the team.”
In just a matter of days, athletic director Roger Thomas named Hakstol the new coach. The players were relieved, because they knew there wouldn’t be wholesale changes.
“Once they named Dave Hakstol head coach, we were all like, ‘Yep, we’re doing it,’” Fabian said.
It wasn’t that easy, though.
A SPECIAL TEAM
The 2004-05 season was a bumpy one.
“All kinds of struggles,” Hakstol said. “I don’t know, on paper, how much of a chance we had to be a good team that year. My perspective is different than everyone else’s. We lost a lot. We had a lot of turnover. That’s why that group of guys is so special.”
The team couldn’t get much traction in the first half of the season. Come January and early February, they hit a stretch where they won just one time in seven games.
Fans left the team for dead and wrote off the season. Some became furious that UND hired Hakstol instead of going after Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, a former Sioux player and assistant coach who led the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four the year before.
“Certain pieces of adversity happened along the way,” Hakstol said. “Instead of tearing that team apart, it made it stronger and stronger.”
The headliners on that team included senior forward Colby Genoway, sophomore Drew Stafford, freshman Travis Zajac and freshman Rastislav Spirko. The role players stand out as much as the high scorers, though, Hakstol said.
“Rory McMahon was an absolute driving force on that team,” Hakstol said. “To this day, I don’t think anybody really gives Rory the credit he deserves.”
During UND’s big slump, McMahon had to sit out the Denver series because he got his second game disqualification of the season a week earlier. UND got swept.
“The difference on our bench with Rory on it and Rory not on it was like night and day,” Hakstol said. “He had a real stronghold as a leader on that team. He was a well-respected guy. He was part of that old-school mentality that group had and decided to come together.”
After a 5-2 loss at Alaska Anchorage in mid-February, things started to click for the Sioux. They had three-point weekends against Wisconsin and St. Cloud State before crushing Duluth twice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Then, in the WCHA Final Five semifinals, one of the most popular players in the locker room, defenseman Robbie Bina, suffered a broken neck when Denver’s Geoff Paukovich checked him from behind into the boards. The team rallied around Bina.
The Sioux beat rival Minnesota in the third-place game at the Final Five. Captain Matt Greene scored a rare goal in that game and didn’t react to the puck going in. The joke in Grand Forks was that Greene scores so rarely that he doesn’t know how to celebrate.
The truth: He couldn’t celebrate. He was too injured.
Down the stretch, Greene didn’t practice during the week. His arm would be in a sling. And if he got on the ice, he would use his skates to kick pass it to teammates. Come the weekend, he would suit up and play his bruising style of game.
“Matt Greene was playing with one arm,” Fabian said. “He didn’t practice, but he would play his heart out. Then, he would ice it up and come back the next week and do it again. It was absolutely amazing to watch.”
Kyle Radke was a freshman on that team.
“I’ve had the fortune of playing for a lot of great captains in my career,” Radke said. “But it’s impossible to beat Matt Greene.”
He wasn’t the only guy playing with a significant injury. Forward Mike Prpich was so injured that he needed a teammate to help him take off his jersey after games. Prpich couldn’t lift his arm. Brian Canady also was battling significant injuries.
Even so, the Sioux were battering their opponents physically — with a defensive corps that included Greene, Matt Jones, Matt Smaby and Andy Schneider — and on the scoreboard. NHL commentator Bill Clement said on the air that the Sioux were more physical than some NHL teams.
They went to Worcester, Mass., for the regionals and beat Boston University and Boston College in their own back yard to earn a berth to the Frozen Four.
At the Frozen Four, UND personalized its locker room. The Sioux printed off all of the e-mails they received from former players and taped them on the wall of the locker room by the door. They also hung Bina’s jersey from the ceiling.
UND beat rival Minnesota in the semifinals. Fabian and Zajac each scored twice. In the national championship game, UND outshot Denver 45-24, but lost 4-1. One DU goal was a shot that was going several feet wide, but hit Paul Stastny in the rear end and went in the net. Another goal went off of Smaby’s skate.
Of the four Frozen Four losses, Hakstol said that was probably the hardest one to take.
“I don’t make many claims. When you lose, you move on. You didn’t do things well enough,” Hakstol said. “In ‘04-05, that was the best team in the country the last few months of the season. I look at that, in terms of our Frozen Four runs, as the one where we played our best hockey. We deserved a better fate on that particular night.
That was a team, within their own personality, was as dominant and as good as any team I’ve seen down the stretch through the last five, six, seven weeks of that year. It was absolutely a group of such strong will. Nothing fazed them. That group of guys really embodied what Sioux hockey is all about. They were hardnosed, hard-working and committed to teammates. That’s what made that team go. It was really fun to be around.”
THE NIGHT THE ROOF CAME OFF
UND lost nine seniors and both Greene and Murray turned pro early. To replace them, UND brought in an enormous freshman class of 13 players. It also might be one of the best rookie classes ever to come through the program.
Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee all played in the NHL by age 22. Ryan Duncan went on to win a Hobey. Joe Finley was a first-round pick, Andrew Kozek a second-round pick and Matt Watkins a fifth-round pick. Zach Jones, Brad Miller, Ryan Martens and Aaron Walski also were among that class.
With so many rookies playing every night, the team started off slow. They caught fire down the stretch and won the Broadmoor Trophy.
Ralph Engelstad Arena hosted the NCAA West Regional that year, so the Sioux were automatically placed at home. Their visitors? Michigan, Holy Cross and No. 1 Minnesota.
Being it was the first NCAA tournament in Grand Forks since the early 1980s, there was a buzz around town and the games sold out immediately.
“Going into the national tournament, we felt like we had a realistic chance at being as good as anyone,” Hakstol said.
The first game figured to be a blowout: No. 4 seed Holy Cross vs. No. 1 Minnesota, the WCHA regular season champion. A No. 4 seed had never won an NCAA game at that point.
The game was scoreless after one period, and Minnesota had to answer a pair of Holy Cross goals in the second. Early in the third, the Gophers went up 3-2 on a goal by Alex Goligoski.
“At that point in time, you think OK, it’s over,” Hakstol said. “They’ll get rolling now and put that game away. For me, I really started focusing on the countdown to our warmup. All of the sudden, you hear a big roar and you knew that Holy Cross tied it up.”
The game went to overtime.
In the locker room, UND players were dressed, waiting to hit the ice for the warmups. Hakstol was about to walk into the player’s lounge.
“All of the sudden, I heard the roof come off the place,” Hakstol said.
The players had suspected that Holy Cross scored the game-winning goal, but forward Mike Prpich ran out into the hallway and looked to make sure.
“That’s a unique moment I’ll never forget,” Duncan said. “We heard this huge roar a minute into overtime. Prp ran out in the hallway. When he came back through the doors, I’ll never forget his reaction when he told us it was Holy Cross. It was almost like ‘yeah, right.’ That was before Bemidji State made the Frozen Four and all those upsets.”
Hakstol said: “It was a little bit of disbelief. Minnesota had a hell of a team and a hell of a roster. It’s just one of those things where anything can happen.
“When we came out of the tunnel, the whole building was just so charged up that you could feel it. It was pouring gasoline on a fire. It was special. Anybody in the building who said they didn’t have goose bumps or a tingle running up and down their spine, I think they’re lying. It was one heck of an atmosphere. It was fun to be part of.”
UND took the ice and immediately jumped on a loaded Michigan team. Duncan scored five minutes in. Oshie scored next. Then, Stafford added shorthanded goal and it was 3-0.
“Sometimes on nights like that, you have to have our focus,” Hakstol said. “But you’ve got to go with that adrenaline rush and use it to your advantage and we did that. Right from the Holy Cross overtime goal to the time we were up two or three, we rode the wave. In that particular case, had we not been on home ice in that situation, maybe we don’t get off to the great start we did against a great Michigan team.”
UND beat Holy Cross the next night to advance to its second straight Frozen Four, but the Sioux fell behind Boston College 3-0 in the semifinals and could never catch up. The final score was 6-5 Eagles.
“Every time we got out of a hole, we dug ourselves a new one,” Hakstol said. “We ended up running out of time and couldn’t dig out. We didn’t play well enough. We had some guys that played very well. We didn’t have an entire roster playing at a high level. We didn’t play well enough to win on that particular night.”
THE DOT LINE AND HOBEY
UND had another major makeover after the 2006 Frozen Four. Stafford, Zajac, Spirko, Smaby and Jordan Parise all gave up eligibility to sign pro contracts.
The team again struggled in replacing all of those key players. They went on tailspin heading into the Christmas break — a 1-7 mark in the eight games before holidays, including a sweep at the hands of lowly Michigan Tech.
After that sweep, the players sat in the locker room for a lengthy time and stewed.
“We stayed in there for a long time,” Duncan said. “We had a long meeting after Michigan Tech and the whole team aired things out and we got a lot of things off our chest. After that, I had a really good feeling going into Christmas break. Coming back, everything fell into place.”
UND went unbeaten in 19 of the first 21 games after Christmas.
Hakstol put together a line of Duncan, Oshie and Toews — which was later nicknamed the DOT line by Sioux fan Ryan Dunphy — and they tore through opponents. They scored in every game during the second half.
While Toews and Oshie attracted attention for being first-round picks, Duncan was the guy piling up monster numbers. He took center stage when UND went to Mariucci Arena in January and swept No. 1 Minnesota 5-3 and 7-3. It was the first time the Sioux had swept the Gophers in Minneapolis in more than 20 years.
Duncan had four goals and seven points in the series. During the post-series handshake, Gopher forward Kyle Okposo told Duncan that he would be a Hobey Baker finalist.
“I was like ‘What?’” Duncan said. “I didn’t even think about it. It hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
Duncan was indeed named one of 10 finalists on the same day he was named the WCHA’s player of the year. At the league’s awards banquet, Duncan gave all the credit to his linemates.
“Ryan Duncan was our best player that year,” Fabian said. “Even above Jonny. Even above Osh. Duncan was our best player and he was our most productive guy game in and game out.”
UND again made the Frozen Four, which probably boosted Duncan’s candidacy. In the NCAA regional, they beat Michigan 8-5 in a crazy first-round game. Then, UND beat the Gophers in the regional championship on an overtime goal by Chris Porter.
“That was a great college hockey game,” Hakstol said. “It was nard-nosed. It was high pace. There was great goaltending. There was a little bit of everything. It was a great hockey game with so much on the line, just to go to the Frozen Four. Then, you throw in what’s arguably one of the best rivalries in college sports and that raises the stakes.
“No matter what we said at the time that raised the stakes. I’m sure in the pregame press conference I said I’m not worried about that or thinking about that. But who’s kidding who? That raised the stakes.”
Again, UND lost in the Frozen Four to Boston College. Oshie tied the game 3-3 on a shorthanded goal with 4:38 left in the game. Then, Finley was called for elbowing and Boston College scored on the power play to win the game.
“I felt that going into the semifinals, Boston College and ourselves were the two best teams in the country at that time,” Hakstol said. “To lose in the fashion we did, it was a tough pill to swallow.”
The next day, UND flew home on a charter, but Duncan stayed for the Hobey ceremony. As the team boarded the bus, Fabian went and told Duncan: “I hope you win that Hobey.”
Duncan, still dejected about the loss, told Fabian: “I could care less right now.”
Fabian responded: “I understand that and appreciate that, but I want you to win.”
“He’s just such a modest, team guy,” Fabian said.
Duncan did win the trophy, and joined Tony Hrkac as UND’s only winners.
“That whole moment was bittersweet,” Duncan said. “It was great to have all the fans stick around for it like they did. But I would have loved for my teammates to be there, because they were a big part of that award.
“The best part was getting back to Grand Forks and seeing my teammates waiting for me at the airport.”
THE CAPTAIN’S CALL
Immediately after the 2007 Frozen Four, the Chicago Blackhawks called Toews and asked if he wanted to sign his NHL contract and play the final two games of the regular season for the NHL squad.
Toews decided to wait.
“Most people don’t know that,” Duncan said. “He made the decision that he was going to go back to North Dakota and have some fun with his teammates and end his sophomore year with his teammates. Jon was only 18 at that time. I think he knew he wouldn’t be experiencing that anymore and he wanted to soak up that college experience as long as he could.”
Later in the summer, after being a standout for the Canadians at the World Men’s Championship, Toews decided it was time to sign and he inked with the Blackhawks. Lee signed with Ottawa. And Sioux fans feared that the several others would follow.
But Duncan, Oshie, Chorney and Finley talked to each other and decided they would stay and make one more run at the national championship.
Again, it wasn’t easy in the first half. UND was sitting at just 9-8-1 on Jan. 4. Then, the Sioux went on an epic 18-game unbeaten streak to earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
UND was assigned to a regional at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center. And after beating Princeton 5-1 behind a Duncan hat trick, the Sioux had to play the hometown Badgers with a Frozen Four berth on the line.
“I would take that any day, having to go to the Kohl Center in front of 15,000 in red,” Hakstol said, “over going to a neutral site with very little atmosphere or care in the stands. It’s a different atmosphere as a road team.”
Wisconsin led 2-0 after two periods. In the locker room, a quiet Rylan Kaip made a declaration before returning to the ice.
“I got the first one boys,” he said. “Who’s coming with me?”
Kaip, not known for scoring goals, went out and popped one in early in the period. Just seconds later, Duncan ripped home the tying goal and Kozek sent the team to the Frozen Four with an overtime tally.
“Wisconsin played great,” Hakstol said. “Over 60 minutes, they were the best team that night. We found enough grit and will and great goaltending to keep ourselves alive. In true, typical North Dakota fashion, one of the unheralded guys really made a huge difference. It wasn’t Kaiper yelling or screaming, just a calm, quiet statement. Then he goes out and does it. It’s a pretty neat story.”
Again, UND met Boston College in the Frozen Four. And again, it ended poorly for the Sioux, who were crushed 6-1.
“What’s hidden in all of that is that the first 10 to 12 minutes, I wouldn’t script any differently,” Hakstol said. “We were the team that had all the momentum. We were playing our game, taking care of the puck and grinding down low. To BC’s credit, they took advantage of a couple of mistakes and we got behind the 8-ball. For that team, it was tough to take. It wasn’t meant to be our night.”
A MACNAUGHTON, A BROADMOOR AND THE FUTURE
Despite being knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons, the Sioux have managed to win WCHA titles in each of them.
In 2008-09, led by eight seniors, the Sioux went unbeaten in 16 of 17 games down the stretch and clinched the MacNaughton Cup with a Chris VandeVelde game-winning goal in the Kohl Center.
The MacNaughton Cup was presented to the Sioux after they swept Michigan Tech in a first-round series. In order to present it, UND called Brandt and Fuher — two members of the program’s last MacNaughton-winning team, to carry the Cup on the ice and pass it to the current team.
“When we were bringing it out,” Brandt said, “I told Fuher: ‘You know why they asked us to do this, right? It’s because we’re the only two from that team who aren’t in the NHL right now.’”
The next week, UND went 0-2 at the WCHA Final Five, then lost to New Hampshire in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats scored a game-tying goal with 0:00.1 left on the clock and won in overtime.
“That is one of the stranger games I’ve been a part of,” Hakstol said. “If there are 10 critical parts in a game, eight of them were outstanding that night. Two of them were terrible. And that was enough to end up getting beat. We didn’t have a consistent enough, complete game to win.”
Despite having a WCHA-high 10 freshmen in 2009-10 and losing captain Genoway to a concussion in November, the Sioux pulled together another second-half surge.
The Sioux went 12-1 heading into the NCAA tournament, including a dramatic three-day ride to the Broadmoor Trophy at the WCHA Final Five. UND became only the second team to ever come from the Thursday play-in game to win the WCHA championship.
Hakstol said UND’s charge brought back memories of the 2004-05 team.
“They were just hard to play against,” he said. “I don’t think anybody enjoyed playing against us at the end of last year. That was a group of guys who played hard, had good skill, but really had a lunch-pail mentality.”
Although the run at the WCHA Final Five might have ultimately cost UND in the first-round NCAA tournament game against Yale (the Sioux were battered injury-wise), Hakstol said he wouldn’t do it over again.
“I hope it was a pretty special run for our fans,” he said. “I think we had 9,000 or 10,000 fans in the building. They were great games, fun games to watch. We built momentum and continued to play our style throughout the weekend until the last 20 minutes against St. Cloud, where we absolutely ran out of gas. You could see the tank hit empty. We had to find a way to get it done and we did.”
UND alternate captains VandeVelde and Darcy Zajac refused to accept the Broadmoor Trophy from the commissioner, insisting that the injured Genoway accept it as captain.
“That was a special moment,” Hakstol said.
MEMORIES FROM THE PLAYERS
Two years ago, Genoway had offers from multiple pro teams, but decided that he would return to UND instead.
At a press conference, he said that if he could stay for 10 years, he would.
Several other Sioux players have made similar decision in the last decade. Toews, Oshie, Chorney, Lee and VandeVelde all made decisions to put off pro hockey for at least another year to play for UND.
Even when everybody knew it was time for Toews and Oshie to turn pro, the first-round picks said they had a tough time leaving UND.
“Our players are our best recruiters,” Hakstol said. “That group of guys also is the most difficult group of guys to leave. That’s what makes it real tough. You’re part of something special here, year in and year out. You’re part of a special group of guys. You know that you’ve got 23 or 24 teammates that are always going to take care of you. That bond is tough to leave.
“I think that’s why guys on that final day know in their head, business-wise and development-wise it’s time to go, that’s the biggest hurdle to get over.”
Several players who have moved on echoed that sentiment.
Parise told the Herald that he wishes he would have returned to school for his junior season.
Duncan stayed for all four years and earned his degree.
“Once you leave, you can’t go back,” Duncan said. “I now realize how special college was. You can never go back and be going to school with 15,000 people your own age. Now, it’s a business. Now, it’s a lot more individual and selfish. In college, with the team atmosphere we had in North Dakota. . . I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
Radke, in his third year of pro hockey, discussed the bond between his Sioux teammates.
“I wish I knew then what I know now about how special my time was there,” Radke said. “There will never bee a feeling like putting on that Sioux uniform and being in that locker room ever again, that’s for sure. There’s not the passion in the locker room, there’s not the tightness. It’s nothing like the Sioux family.
“I’m still talking to one of those guys every day. They are your boys for life. They are the guys standing next to you at your wedding. They are the guys who will be there for you when you need them down the line. It’s almost an understatement to say they are family, because it’s such a brotherhood.”
When time has come to move on, UND players have had considerable success in the last decade.
Excluding players on the current team, 61 guys have suited up for the Sioux during the Ralph Engelstad Arena era. Of those, 46 of them have played pro hockey and 15 of them have played in the NHL.
That averages out to one in four players who have suited up for the Sioux in the REA era have made it to the NHL. That’s a stunning defiance of the traditional odds.
“Nobody is guaranteed anything,” Hakstol said. “The odds are against any one individual, but we are committed to development.”
Hakstol said that Parise and David Hale — both first-round picks who have played a combined 734 games in the NHL already — helped start UND’s current run of first-round draft picks. Other talented players followed them here.
“Our players are our best recruiters, hands down,” Hakstol said. “Your players are the program. Young men want to be around like-minded people. They want to surround themselves with people who want to be successful and have similar goals and are willing to make similar sacrifices.”
Players also have used Engelstad Arena’s amenities to further their game, and the evidence has showed in the pro ranks.
Toews became the first former WCHA player to captain a team to a Stanley Cup when he did it last year with the Chicago Blackhawks. He also became the WCHA’s first Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the MVP of the NHL playoffs. Toews is the third-youngest captain in NHL history and is currently the youngest captain in the league.
Parise was an alternate captain in the U.S. Olympic team, which won silver, and he holds the same captaincy for the New Jersey Devils. Already selected as an NHL All-Star in his career, Parise is expected to soon become the next captain of the Devils now that Jamie Langenbrunner has left.
Oshie was voted as the most popular player on the St. Louis Blues and was leading the team in scoring before he got injured this season.
Matt Greene is an alternate captain for the Los Angeles Kings. Travis Zajac has played in 385 consecutive games for the Devils. And Drew Stafford, in the midst of his best pro season, has two hat tricks in the last month-and-a-half.
“I don’t know what the average is for a normal first-round pick,” Hakstol said. “But the vast majority of our first-round picks are having significant NHL careers.”
Herald staff writer Brad Schlossman covers University of North Dakota hockey for the Grand Forks Herald and GrandForksHerald.com. He also has a blog, http://undhockey.areavoices.com .
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