Now What For Sioux?
by Dane DeKrey/Staff Writer
ST. LOUIS In 2003-04 and 2004-05, the magic number was two; in 2005-06, it jumped to five; and now, one day removed from its 6-4 loss last night against Boston College, North Dakota must begin to prepare for the possibility of its highest number to date — six.
What this all means, of course, is the number of underclassmen who choose to forgo their NCAA eligibility to chase every hockey player's dream, to play in the NHL. And while the early-departure bug has afflicted college hockey collectively, it has been particularly detrimental for the Fighting Sioux, who have seen almost every blue chip recruit from the past four seasons end their collegiate careers early.
The list is impressive, littered with future NHL all-stars aplenty — Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford and Matt Green to name a few — but the worst may have yet to come.
With four first-round draft picks in Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, Brian Lee and Joe Finley already making noise, along with rumors swirling around Taylor Chorney and even possibly Ryan Duncan, the worst-case scenario for UND could leave the 2006-07 squad gutted, as it would lose five of its top seven scorers, a core that accounted for more than 50 percent of the team's total scoring on the year.
While emotions ran high in the locker room Thursday night, too high for any player to make definitive statements regarding their futures, the general mood was that of disappointment and a realization of the squandered opportunity to capitalize on what many considered UND's most talented roster in recent years, if not ever.
"We knew how special a group we had this year, even Coach Hakstol sat us down and told us how great an opportunity we had, which makes this loss even more difficult to swallow," said Chorney, whose NHL Draft rights belong to Edmonton. "No one's really thinking about the next step right now, but there are definitely some decisions that some guys are going to have to make in the course of the next few days or months."
Gloom-and-doom aside, a realistic number for the team is between two and four, as few would argue that Toews, of whom the Chicago Blackhawks are looking to build their franchise around, and Oshie, a St. Louis draftee, will never again been seen plying their trade in the college ranks.
For Toews, his future technically still uncertain, two years in a UND jersey proved everything it was billed to be, and then some.
"Playing at UND has definitely been the ride of my life," said Toews, UND's highest ever draft pick. "Ending like this — losing here for a second time to BC — is the toughest thing I've ever felt in my life; when it comes down to this you want to win so badly, and when you can't pull it off, you feel like you've let your brothers down."
For others whose future may not be as certain as that of Oshie and Toews, it is the missed opportunity to etch their names in the record books that left them most disappointed. Duncan was particularly vocal about the team this year, a roster with 11 players already having been drafted.
"What's most disappointing is for the three seniors (Chris Porter, Erik Fabian and Scott Foyt) and whoever makes the decision that they're going to leave early because it's going to be the last time I get the opportunity to put on the Sioux jersey with those guys," Duncan said. "This is a pretty special group of guys with a lot of talent; we just came up short, and while hopefully we can look back and be proud of what we accomplished, right now it definitely stings quite a bit."
The sting that UND feels — a combination of three squandered Frozen Four opportunities and yearly lineup reshuffling — will not likely subside for some time. This year the healing time may be the longest to date for the Fighting Sioux, not only because of what didn't happen, but what might have been.
Love UND or hate them, one thing is for sure — college hockey will be losing some of its top talent before next season, products of the changing tides of the NHL.