Former UND national champ Rick Zombo returns with his entertaining Lindenwood Lions
The first-year Division-I team has put a lot of college hockey powerhouses on the ropes this season, but has yet to knock one out.
GRAND FORKS — In the fall of 1983, Rick Zombo made a declaration.
He said every hockey team should have a 'Bubba' on it, and he knew just the teammate on his UND squad.
It was going to be the towering 6-foot-3 freshman defenseman from Bashaw, Alta., whose real name was Brad Berry.
"Nobody's really called by their first name," Zombo said. "You spend so much time as a student-athlete and you get so close. Nicknames are a part of it. It's adornment, as far as 'Bubba' goes."
Bubba was quickly shortened to 'Bubs.'
The nickname stuck.
Forty years later, 'Bubs' and Zombo will be together again in Grand Forks, this time on opposite benches in Ralph Engelstad Arena. Berry is the eighth-year coach of the UND men's hockey team. Zombo is the longtime coach of the Lindenwood Lions, who are in their first year at the Division-I level.
Their teams will play a two-game nonconference series at 7:07 p.m. Friday and 6:07 p.m. Saturday.
UND was originally set to play at Cornell this weekend — a makeup from the 2020-21 COVID-altered season — but because of a scheduling conflict, Cornell had to push that back to 2024-25.
With a last-minute schedule opening, UND called Lindenwood last summer. Zombo, who hasn't been in Grand Forks since the 2004-05 World Junior Championship, immediately jumped at the opportunity to come back to his alma mater.
"This has been on my calendar for a long time," Zombo said after his team's practice Thursday night in The Ralph.
Lindenwood has been quite entertaining in its first year as a Division-I program.
It has put several of college hockey's traditional powerhouses on the ropes, but it has yet to deliver a knockout blow to one of them.
In its second-ever Division-I game, Lindenwood led Minnesota 3-2 in the second period and was tied 4-4 in the third before falling to the Big Ten favorites in Mariucci Arena. The Lions also held a third-period lead on Wisconsin in the Kohl Center and a second-period lead against Michigan in Yost Ice Arena.
In their last game before Christmas break, the Lions were tied with defending NCAA champion Denver in Magness Arena with three minutes to play. Ultimately, they lost, but the game was an eye-opener around college hockey.
"We keep coming," Zombo said. "This is an opportunity for all my players. We have one NHL pick. We're playing against guys who, when they were 17, scouts thought they were better than mine. . . and, probably, they are. But eventually, you've got to play the game. It's a game of adversity and I allow my guys to make mistakes. We do make mistakes. I want to score. I'm very happy with our scoring. To do that, we're porous. We're young. We don't have the seasoning.
"But where we are in January, I'd have to say my team's running. They understand the concepts and now we're making adjustments on the fly, which is pretty important."
Lindenwood has scored goals in a hurry this season, as evidenced by its first Division-I victory. The Lions trailed Air Force 6-2 late in the second period before reeling off five-straight goals to win 7-6.
They're averaging 2.8 goals per game this season, which is more than Notre Dame, Minnesota Duluth, UMass Lowell, Wisconsin and Maine. Their issue has been giving up too many. They're allowing 4.2 goals per game, which ranks dead last in Division-I men's hockey.
"They skate well," UND associate coach Dane Jackson said. "They've got some big, strong guys who play a physical, hard brand of hockey. Their power play has been good. They move the puck pretty well and shoot the puck well. You've got to be impressed with what they've done in their first year."
Lindenwood is outdoing other recent first-year Division-I teams.
St. Thomas won three games last season. Long Island won three games in 2020-21. Arizona State won three games in 2015-16.
The Lions (5-13) won five before the new year, including an overtime victory at Vermont last weekend. Their schedule eases up in the second half, making it entire possible to get to double-digit wins.
"Every time we play a game, it's our playoffs," Zombo said. "They know that there's no tournament."
That's a little different than Zombo's situation when he was playing college hockey at UND from 1981-84.
As a freshman in 1981-82, he jumped onto one of college hockey's greatest teams of all-time and helped them to an NCAA national championship. He played in the NCAA Frozen Four again as a junior — UND took third — before turning pro.
Zombo went on to a 12-year NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins.
Zombo settled in St. Louis and became the club hockey coach at Lindenwood, leading the Lions to a pair of ACHA national titles. Now, he's coaching at the Division-I level, taking his squad back to his old school.
"It's fantastic," Zombo said. "I pulled down the road and I remembered everything — guys that I played with, teachers, girlfriends. . . I don't live in the past but my three years here established everything for me."
Lindenwood at UND
When: 7:07 p.m. Friday, 6:07 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Ralph Engelstad Arena.
TV: Midco Sports (GF Ch. 27/622 HD).
Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).