The 2010s are over for UND hockey.
UND played 436 times in the decade. I covered 436 games.
Thanks to the Herald’s dedication to covering college hockey, good enough health and a few strokes of luck battling winter travel, I was able to see it all: from Brett Hextall’s power-play goal in Hoffman Estates, Ill., to Jasper Weatherby’s empty-netter in Plymouth, Mich., and the 1,463 UND goals in between.
That journey, which athletic trainer Mark Poolman also made with perfect attendance, hit all corners of the country from Fairbanks to Tampa, from Maine to Vegas.
UND played in 17 states and two Canadian provinces during the decade. That doesn’t account for other states we traveled through to get to those games, like South Dakota, Iowa and, believe it or not, that unexpected adventure through New Mexico.
For a writer, it’s the unexpected and unconventional events and stories that make things fun.
It’s Josh Rieger finding out, while he’s eating a pound of buffalo wings at the Cherry Cricket, that he’s suddenly in the lineup for a game against the No. 1-ranked team in the country, missing most of warmups while Ubering to the rink, then scoring his first-career goal, the game-winner.
It’s watching a team that doesn’t have enough healthy bodies to fill out a full lineup somehow keep winning and winning and winning, then pulling off the ultimate rally by storming back from a 3-0 deficit against rival Minnesota to win 6-3 in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
It’s getting stranded for three days in South Dakota with thousands of UND fans trying to make their way home from Omaha after the outdoor game at T.D. Ameritrade Field.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a full appreciation for the routine.
I can always count on public address announcer Darrin Looker rounding up the press box workers to walk around the concourse 90 minutes before each home contest.
And any time they attend a game, I can always count on a group of UND fans who dress up as farm animals, the Barnyard Crew, to somehow sneak into any press box in the league to take a selfie with me. They’ve breached security in at least three NCHC arenas. That tradition started in 2015.
Stark contrasts mark college hockey
I’m often asked about my favorites: What’s your favorite place to see a game? What’s your favorite city to travel to? What are your favorite teams to cover?
To me, it’s difficult to say, because every venue and city is so different, and each of them have their own unique charm.
The venues aren’t cookie-cutter like the NHL. You see vast differences from week to week. Consider: In December 2016, I covered UND games in both Madison Square Garden, the World’s Most Famous Arena, and Union’s tiny Messa Rink, which has two restrooms -- one on the wrong side of the ticket-takers. Both experiences were fantastic in their own ways.
I covered UND games in a city with a population of 8.6 million (New York) and in a town with a population of 7,800 (Houghton, Mich.). Seeing Times Square and the Empire State Building is fun, but so is walking across the Lift Bridge in Houghton to grab a pizza at the Ambassador.
I covered games in four venues that didn’t exist when the decade started and covered a Hobey Baker Award ceremony in an arena older than the Titanic.
As far as teams go, I covered the 2015-16 team, which did something remarkable every night, as well as the 2011-12 team, which defied odds every night.
How can you pick favorites?
Most fans know about all the great plays that transpired during the decade, like Evan Trupp carrying the puck the length of the ice on the blade of his stick in 2011, Connor Gaarder sending UND to the Frozen Four with a double overtime goal in 2014, the tic-tac-toe goal against Miami where six players touched the puck in four seconds in 2015 and Nick Schmaltz killing the Frozen Four semifinal demon with his last-minute goal against Denver in 2016.
Most fans know about the thrilling games, too, like the three-straight Final Five championships to open the decade (2010, 2011, 2012), the four Frozen Four appearances and the special 2016 team that brought college hockey’s grandest prize back home to Grand Forks.
But for all of the incredible games, terrific hockey players and stunning goals I covered in the decade, some of my favorite memories are little ones behind the scenes that never made it into print.
After a rough home loss during a challenging 2016-17 season, I sat in the press box typing my game story. My Twitter mentions were buzzing with angry fans sounding off. I saw two comments saying this team was a bunch of losers who had no heart.
Then, I looked down on the ice and saw Tucker Poolman and Tyson Jost, wearing street clothes in an empty arena, passing the puck back and forth with a child who was battling cancer, while Christian Wolanin gave a personalized tour of the locker room to another fan with health challenges. The kids were so happy. I thought to myself, if only those angry fans knew: On this night, these players were big winners and they were all heart.
At other times, fans were on point.
Former UND baseball player David Spies worked a second job during the 2014-15 season and saved up enough money to go to the Frozen Four in Boston. He flew out of Fargo the day of the semifinal game, but because of poor weather, was stranded in O’Hare and missed the game.
After UND lost to Boston University, he opted to turn around and go home instead of continue to Boston. That night, he messaged me, undeterred, and said he was going to work his second job again the following season.
“I’m going to save up money. I’m going to go to Tampa. I’m going to leave on Tuesday. I’m going to golf all week. And I’m going to watch UND win the national championship,” he said.
Sure enough, he worked his second job all year. He went to Tampa. He left on Tuesday. He golfed all week. And he watched UND win the national title.
He also showed me a Facebook post that his friend, Matt, wrote after the Frozen Four loss to Boston University in 2015. The post said: "I'd rather be at 10 they lose than miss the one they win." Matt didn't miss the one they won. He was in Tampa, too.
There were countless other great moments spent with fans.
Anybody who attended UND’s outdoor game in Omaha at T.D. Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series, in 2013 won’t forget it -- or what followed it.
First, there was the impromptu gathering of fans above the dugout where UND left the playing surface at the end of the game and the deafening roar as the team made the long walk off the field after finishing off a weekend sweep.
Then, there were the three days in South Dakota. A blizzard stranded thousands of UND fans across towns located on I-29 from Sisseton to Watertown to Summit to Sioux Falls for two or three days.
The Herald crew was in Sioux Falls having a relaxing night poolside at the Ramada when a fan bus from Hazen, N.D., showed up. By the end of the night, we were placing bets on rubber ducks racing down the large water slide.
There was another unforgettable night with fans in March 2014.
After beating Western Michigan in the third-place game at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, UND needed Wisconsin to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game to get in to the NCAA tournament.
UND opted to stay in Minneapolis and watch the end of that game in the Marriott before heading back to Grand Forks.
I was watching in the lobby with a large gathering of fans -- who were all keenly aware of the situation and what was needed to keep UND’s season alive -- when Ohio State scored to go up 4-2 with 6:52 left in the third period.
I said, “That’s it.” I jumped in the elevator to go up to my hotel room to write a story about UND missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
I got up to my room, flipped on the game on TV, and it was tied. Wisconsin had scored twice while I was in the elevator. Then, the Badgers won it in overtime, keeping UND’s season alive.
I knew the lobby would be wild, so I went back down to get some color for my story. I was on a high floor and could hear the roars from the lobby the second I got in the elevator. A volleyball team was staying in the hotel and one of the players in the elevator with me said, with a terrified look on her face: “What is happening at this hotel right now?!”
When I got to the lobby, it was still buzzing. Some players watched from the lobby with the fans. They were hugging. Others made their way downstairs after the overtime goal.
When coach Dave Hakstol got off of the elevator, the hundred-plus UND fans in the lobby all saw him and went crazy. Hakstol gave them a few fist-pumps, and they got even louder. It was quite a scene.
And, of course, there was Ferg's.
The indoor-outdoor bar-restaurant across the street from Tampa's Amalie Arena was packed with UND fans after the team won the 2016 NCAA national championship with a convincing 5-1 beating of Quinnipiac.
I've never been in a place where I've seen so many people so unbelievably happy. It was the culmination of so many years of Frozen Four heartbreak finally coming to an end. People were so happy that they were walking around with buckets of beer passing them out to strangers.
Knowing what’s to come
Sometimes, there are little moments behind the scenes that foreshadow what’s to come.
After UND snuck into the 2014 NCAA tournament, it happened to draw that same team that just got UND in the tournament -- Wisconsin -- in Cincinnati.
I was sitting in the make-shift press box in U.S. Bank Arena before the game when UND sports information director Jayson Hajdu walked up with a bewildered look on his face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Hak’s being. . . weird,” Hajdu said.
“What do you mean?”
“We’re 10 minutes away from warmups and he is smiling... laughing... joking around,” Hajdu said, still looking confused. “He was telling me that I need to relax and that I’m too up tight right now.”
“What?!” I said, incredulously.
“It’s almost like he knows something we don’t,” Hajdu said.
Sure enough, he did.
UND upset Wisconsin that night, knocked off Ferris State the next day and became one of UND’s more unlikely Frozen Four teams.
One day in 2010, I was in The Ralph as the team was hauling gear onto the bus. This is a job left up to the freshmen.
Then-freshman Andrew MacWilliam threw a large bag over each shoulder. Another freshman was nearby, walked past the bags, and neglected his duties. MacWilliam saw this. He didn’t say anything. He gave a slight eye roll, grabbed two more bags, threw both of those over his shoulders, too, and hauled all four of them -- at once -- to the bus.
Operations director Patrick Swanson watched the scene play out. After MacWilliam cleared the area, Swanson looked at me, gave a slight nod in approval and said: “Gonna be a two-year captain.”
Sure enough, MacWilliam wore an ‘A’ as a junior and a ‘C’ as a senior. He was one of the best captains of the decade.
Speaking of captains, I can’t forget a weekend in Houghton in December 2012 during the NHL lockout.
Former UND captain Matt Greene, the alternate captain of the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings on a $15 million contract at the time, decided to fly to Grand Forks and hang out with his old UND teammate, Andy Schneider. That weekend, Greene and Schneider got in a car and drove nine hours to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to attend UND’s two-game series against Michigan Tech. A couple of other friends and Matt’s father, Jim, joined them.
I could only laugh at the situation, which could most aptly describe Matt Greene: While other NHL players were vacationing in luxurious destinations in warm climates, Greene was driving 18 hours round trip to Houghton, cramming in a $40 a night hotel room (seriously) with five other guys and drinking $1 beers at the Downtowner. Matt Greene will never change.
On to the next decade
As a writer, I’m grateful for all of the players, coaches, administrators and even referees, who have been willing to share their stories -- both the fun ones and the difficult ones.
As a writer, I'm also thankful that I get to work alongside and learn from a legend in Virg Foss, who is not only one of college hockey's greatest historians and writers, but also an incredible mentor, personally and professionally, and has time for everyone.
Our staff at the Herald is grateful for all of the readers. The support has allowed the Herald to be at every game -- home and road -- for more than a decade. That's pretty unheard of these days. Hopefully, we've been able to get fans to know those involved with the program that won more games than anyone during the 2010s.
The new decade starts this weekend with a series against Alabama Huntsville. There will surely be more memories made and stories to tell. We plan to be there to write about them.