North Dakota Rolling With the Changes
by Eric Stromgren/CHN Writer
The Fighting Sioux logo and nickname have been removed from the University of North Dakota hockey jersey.
A pair of key players from last year's NCAA Tournament team left school early for the professional ranks, there's a new assistant coach after Cary Eades was let go, and 2012-13 marks the final UND season in the WCHA.
Captain Andrew MacWilliam said it "can be pretty difficult" starting the season with all those changes in the air.
"For us, it's just leaving our mark on North Dakota's existence in the WCHA," MacWilliam said. "They've been there for many years, won many MacNaughton Cups, many Broadmoors. Our class alone has won three Broadmoor Trophies. It would be awesome to get a clean sweep this year and we just want to leave a good mark on the WCHA."
North Dakota will skate this winter without the American Indian warrior logo, which was discontinued in June when 67 percent of statewide voters "in favor of retiring it."
The legal battles ended Sept. 26 with an agreement between the NCAA and the North Dakota attorney general. The agreement allows the thousands of the logos to remain inside Ralph Engelstad Arena and Betty Engelstad Center, though signs reading "Home of the Fighting Sioux" must be removed.
"We might not have the logo, but they can't take away what's in your heart," MacWilliam said. "I know for the guys who have been here and the coaching staff, we'll always be the Fighting Sioux. That's something we have to carry on. We have to carry on that tradition, that history that has been built for so many years by so many people. We have to continue it on to a new era."
North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol was clear about the team's identity moving forward without the logo and nickname.
"Obviously our team identity is a hard-working, lunch-pail style, honest hockey team," Hakstol said. "That's what our identity is and that identity will not ever change."
Changes and challenges
North Dakota bucked last season's widespread expectations that it would be a rebuilding year, coming off a 32-win campaign and 2011 Frozen Four appearance.
UND finished 26-13-3 last season despite winning four of its first 12 games. UND's eight-game winning streak at the end of the season was snapped by a 5-2 loss to Minnesota in the NCAA West Regional Championship.
"You always have your doubters," MacWilliam said. "For us last year, I think we went through more adversity as a team than any other team I've been part of. Whether it was injuries or what not, it was impressive to see where we started in the fall to where we ended in the spring. I think that's a kudos to the coaching staff and the leadership group from last year."
North Dakota lost sophomore forward Brock Nelson (New York Islanders) and junior Aaron Dell (Colorado, ECHL) to professional contracts in the offseason. Nelson led the team in points (47) and goals (28), and Dell had a .900 save percentage in 33 games played.
The loss of Dell leaves senior Tate Maris (no regular season appearances), Alabama-Huntsville junior transfer Clarke Saunders and freshman Zane Gothberg as UND's goaltenders this season.
"It's a little bit unconventional in terms of the way the class came in but I think it's a competitive group," Hakstol said.
Hakstol did not name a starting goalie and said "performance will dictate" who plays.
The goaltending situation is not the only challenge facing UND as the season starts.
North Dakota will be shorthanded the opening weekend of the regular season in Fairbanks after a team party on Sept. 15 resulted in suspensions from UND Athletic Director Brian Faison.
Captains MacWilliam, Corban Knight, Danny Kristo and Carter Rowney will serve one-game suspensions Oct. 19 against Alaska-Anchorage. Connor Gaarder, Andrew Panzarella and Stephane Pattyn will serve suspensions Oct. 20 against Alaska-Fairbanks.
"Recent actions by our team are not a good representation of our place as role models within our community," Hakstol said in a UND press release. "We have young men of high character in our locker room, but our players, and in particular our leaders, must be accountable for their actions."
Hakstol declined further comment for this story.
Kristo and Brendan O'Donnell also received one-game suspensions for violating UND Athletics Department policy unrelated to the party. O'Donnell will serve his suspension against Anchorage and Kristo will serve his against Fairbanks.
"We're dealing with it and moving on, that's all I can really say about that," MacWilliam said. "We're sticking together and that's a big thing."
Senior forwards Kristo (45 points), Knight (40 points) and Rowney (33 points) are expected to be offensive leaders this year.
"I think we've got the ability and the possibility to really build a group of forwards that has excellent depth, solid scoring ability throughout the lineup," Hakstol said. "But that has to be developed over time and we have to answer that question over time."
Hakstol sees MacWilliam, Joe Gleason and Derek Forbort as cornerstones on defense. MacWilliam, Gleason, Dillion Simpson and Panzarella all played at least 40 games last season.
"I think all the elements of that group can be a very difficult group to play against and that's the goal," Hakstol said. "Not just physically but in terms of skating ability, puck moving ability and offensive ability."
Helping North Dakota's defense is new assistant coach Brad Berry, a former UND player who served on the UND coaching staff from 2000-06. He replaces Cary Eades, who did not have his contract renewed last season and is now the head coach/general manager for Sioux Falls in the United States Hockey League.
"I've got great things to say about coach Eades too because he's the first one who brought me to the program," MacWilliam said. "I'd like to learn a lot from him (Berry) and just soak everything up. I've only got one year left at the University of North Dakota and he's somebody who is really resourceful."
MacWilliam said there are some high expectations for the sophomore class. He credited Michael Parks (22 points) and Mark MacMillan (23 points) for contributions last season when injuries piled up, and feels freshmen Colten St. Clair and 2011 WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year Rocco Grimaldi can play major roles.
Grimaldi, one of 14 NHL draft picks on UND's roster, played in four games last season before undergoing season-ending surgery to correct a bipartite patella in his right knee. He was able to get a medical redshirt and maintained four years of college eligibility.
"Mentally it was a little upsetting and a little frustrating," Grimaldi said of the rehab process. "Obviously, you have to through some adversities in life and it's about how you bounce back from them. It was definitely a hard time in my life. I look back at it as something that definitely helped me grow as a person and grow in my faith as well."
A slap shot during practice early last season irritated the knee and Grimaldi said surgery was needed because he had trouble skating. He underwent surgery in January to fix the genetic condition, was on crutches into February and continued rehab through August.
"I'm feeling good and feeling better than I did last month," said Grimaldi, a Florida Panthers second-round pick. "I'm just taking it day-by-day and doing what I can right now. I'm doing everything on the ice in terms of practicing. I'm feeling better and I'm feeling more confident. Obviously I have to get my hands back. In terms of my knee I'm ready to go."
Grimaldi mentioned skating ability, shooting and stick handling as specific areas he wants to improve this season.
"Being just a student of the game — continuing do do that and continuing to learn offensively and defensively," Grimaldi said. "There's a lot of things I can grow in and get better at. Hopefully I can make an impact on the team and we can go a little farther this year."
Hakstol said the WCHA will continue to be "high-caliber" and "extremely competitive" this season. The WCHA will split next year as some member schools leave to form the new Big Ten Conference, some leave for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference and others remain to form a new WCHA.
"The WCHA means a great deal to all of us in the fact that it is the final year of the WCHA as we know it," said Hakstol, who is entering his ninth season as UND coach. "It probably means a little bit extra to everybody."
MacWilliam said there is a drive among the players to win a first national championship for Hakstol, though a more motivating factor is ending North Dakota's 12-year title drought.
"I played with many good players who played for four years and didn't get a chance to raise that trophy and I think that's something that everyone should have in the back of their minds," MacWilliam said. "It's so much more than the 26 guys who dress every night. There's more people involved in this. There's hundreds of people who have worn that Fighting Sioux uniform, cheer for us, our fans and everyone involved. I think that's the bigger picture. We want to win it for them as well."