North Dakota Goaltender Connects the Past to the Present
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
In the fall of 2001, the doors to the then-brand new Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., officially opened, as the building Sports Illustrated called the “Taj Mahal of Hockey” hosted its inaugural game. Just months earlier, the Fighting Sioux – having won the 2000 national title a year before – had played in its second consecutive national championship game.
Current North Dakota sophomore goaltender Zane Gothberg was eight years old on the day of the 2001 national title game, which the Sioux lost to Boston College in overtime in Albany. But the days of those national title runs remain forever a part of his childhood memories. A native of Thief River Falls, Minn., Gothberg, it turns out, spent plenty of time in both the old and new Ralph Engelstad Arenas – long before he earned notoriety as the USHL Goaltender of the Year in 2012, long before he earned his first win between the pipes for the Sioux in his debut as a freshman.
Explains Gothberg, “My grandmother was a really big influence in my life – she used to work at the University of North Dakota. She was chairman of the board in the occupational therapy department. On the weekends, we’d come back and see my grandma and hang out. And she had season tickets. We’d go there [to the games]. I’d play mini hockey in the aisles between the periods. And during the games, I’d enjoy watching [former All-American and two-time Hobey Baker Award finalist] Jeff Panzer, Karl Goehring, and those guys playing.
“I just fell in love with the tradition, the passion, and the chaos. It was incredible. It’s always been my dream to play here.”
Goehring, a two-time All-American, backstopped the Sioux to the 2000 national championship, culminating in a 4-2 win against Boston College and was in the net again for the rematch a year later – his final game wearing the North Dakota jersey. Goehring, whom Gothberg idolized as a young Sioux fan, remains the UND record holder in wins (80), winning percentage (.765) and shutouts (15) – and for the past two years, as luck would have it, has been Gothberg’s goaltending coach at North Dakota.
Under Goehring’s tutelage, Gothberg has steadily improved during his first season and a half in Grand Forks, and heading into 2014, he’s started five consecutive games for North Dakota, allowing two goals or less in each, and winning them all.
Prior to this latest winning streak, the Sioux struggled through a 2-6-1 stretch.
“We weren’t playing really good hockey at all,” said the 6-foot-2 sophomore netminder of the slump. “Our compete level was down, and we were complacent in some areas of our game.”
“Tracking the play from our offensive zone back to our defensive zone,” continued Gothberg, “just slowing down players, especially on their rushes and getting back to ‘the house,’ as we call it. That’s just one thing on the X’s and O’s level, but at the end of the day, it just comes down to compete level, a willingness to sacrifice your body.”
Gothberg has, at least for now, established himself as the top goaltender for Dave Hakstol’s team, with senior netminder Clarke Saunders struggling in the early part of the season so far.
But the veteran Saunders has had plenty to do with Gothberg’s recent success.
“Clarke and I – we live in the same house together,” said Gothberg. “We’re best buds away from the rink and at the rink too. We push each other no matter what, whether we’re at the rink or playing Xbox back home. We’re always competing.
“Throughout the week, we have goalie practice with [Goehring]. It gets to be a long couple days leading up to the weekend.”
As January approaches, Gothberg will try and replicate his success as a freshman. Last year, in 10 starts after January, he led all WCHA goaltenders with a 1.98 goals-against average and .937 save percentage, earning a 6-1-2 record during that stretch. His .920 save percentage for the season was tied for fifth-best in UND single-season history, and he even earned an NCAA tournament win over Niagara in the NCAA West Regional semifinal.
None of that seems to make Gothberg content, though, as he looks to improve even further as North Dakota enters the new year in third place in the NCHC, trailing St. Cloud and Nebraska-Omaha.
“Every goalie struggles with rebound control and eliminating the amount of second chance opportunities is very important, and that’s something I’ve worked on,” says Gothberg, a 2010 sixth-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins. “Footwork, getting across the crease laterally, tracking the puck into my pads, into my glove, blocker – that’s when I feel I play my best hockey, when I’m tracking the puck very well.”
For Gothberg, it’s all part of the ongoing fulfillment of a childhood dream, playing for the team he grew up watching, even though he lived in the traditional North Dakota enemy territory of Minnesota, where in 2010 he won the Frank Brimsek Award as the top senior goaltender in the state.
“I don’t know, people talk about the Gophers and stuff too,” said Gothberg with a laugh. “To be honest, I grew up hating the Gophers. That’s in every Fighting Sioux fan’s blood. To be playing here for North Dakota, it’s pretty incredible – it’s surreal.”
Surreal, perhaps, because just 12 years ago, he was a young fan in the stands, cheering on the defending national champions.
And surreal now, as he connects the past of North Dakota hockey with the present and future, because he’s tasked with helping them get back there.