Transfer of Power
Saunders Finds a New Home in Grand Forks
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
It was both exciting and bittersweet at the same time.
Clarke Saunders was wrapping up his sophomore season at Alabama-Huntsville. The Chargers were limping to a 2-28-1 finish and licking their wounds while the program’s future teetered in the balance throughout the entire season. Long road trips to places like Colorado College and New Hampshire were practically weekly occurrences. And there were no planes – the Chargers road up, down and across the United States in a modified bus – really, it was more like a box truck – that allowed Saunders and his teammates to set up beds for the seemingly never-ending travel.
While the hockey team was balancing the challenges of hockey, schoolwork and travel, people back in Huntsville were battling with the school’s administration to save its hockey program from the chopping block due to budgetary issues.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was tough last year,” Saunders said. “We tried to keep our focus on what we were doing and at the end of the day you’re just out there battling with your friends and your teammates every night.”
But Saunders knew before last season ended that his teammates were about to change. Last December, after it was announced that UAH was going to cut its hockey program, Saunders finalized plans to transfer to North Dakota. Because UAH’s program was going under – at least it appeared that way at the time – he was going to be eligible to transfer without sitting out a year, which is typically required by NCAA regulation.
Of course, you know the rest of the story. The Chargers’ program was saved in the 11th hour, a relief, he says, but Saunders was still trading in his Charger jersey for a North Dakota sweater.
Now, when he returns to his dorm after a game for the Sioux, he regularly keeps an eye on his old teammates are faring.
It’s easy to still feel a part of it.
“My focus first and foremost is with my teammates here at North Dakota,” Saunders said. “But of course I keep an eye on those guys. They’re all still my really good friends and I want to see them do well, of course.
"We were really like a family last year. Everyone involved with the program, not just the players, we all really came together trying to do all we could. Even though I was transferring, I was really happy for everyone when they announced they were able to save it.”
At North Dakota, Saunders jumped from a situation where he was a go-to starter into a frying pan where he would be battling for playing time the moment he stepped onto the ice for the first captains’ practice.
At the start of the year, Saunders split time with freshman Zane Gothberg. Recently though, he’s earning more and more minutes.
In 10 games, the junior is 5-3-2 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. Gothberg has started four games.
“I knew the job would basically be open for the two of us to compete for,” Saunders said. “Zane is a freshman and I had some experience, but I knew that we’d be battling for the job. So far it’s really been great competition and I think it will continue to be.”
Saunders’ experience was second to none.
Coming from UAH, he was battle tested. Last season, he faced a whopping 37.5 shots per game, the most of any goalie in the nation.
“Just like any other guy, I want to win,” he said. “Stats really don’t mean anything to me at the end of the day. The only stat I care about is the W.”
“I mean, with the amount of shots, it all depends on the game and it depends on the type of scoring chances as well. If you’re getting a few more shots you might ease into the game a little bit. If you go on droughts without shots it’s easy to get cold but you have to stay mentally tough. It is what it is. You have to go with the flow.”
For the rest of his North Dakota teammates, Saunders and his experience against heavy artillery is a welcome addition.
“Yeah, Clarkie, he’s been a rock this year for us back there right from the beginning,” said North Dakota senior Corban Knight, who is tied for the team lead with 14 points. “It’s nice having a guy come in that has already played a couple of years in college hockey. Where he came from, he got a lot of experience.
"Obviously with a lot of shots and stuff, I think all of the guys have a lot of faith in him and what he can do back there. Just the kind of person he is, he puts a lot of confidence in you because he holds himself so well. He really works hard on his game, always trying to get better.”