North Dakota's Humanitarian Forward Heating Up With Rest of Team
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
After 28 regular-season games – most of them grueling, and still six to go before the start of the inaugural NCHC playoffs – perhaps it’s not surprising that North Dakota forward Mark MacMillan, preparing for this weekend’s series at Minnesota-Duluth, is getting all the rest he can.
“This league is so tight,” says the junior center, fresh off a nap as the North Dakota team bus pulled into cold and snowy Duluth yesterday morning, an almost-five hour drive from Grand Forks. “Every game means so much.”
MacMillan, a 2010 Montreal Canadiens draft pick, is also fresh off a weekend that saw him score five points – two goals, three assists – in a dominant weekend sweep of a struggling Miami team.
And now with points in six of his last seven games, MacMillan, like his team – in its characteristic annual fashion – is starting to heat up at just the ideal time.
“It's been almost a tradition [for us] to not have the best start,” said MacMillan of North Dakota’s typical trend, after his team has gone 13-3-1 after a previous 3-6-1 stretch. “But by the end of the year, we're firing. It’s been no different this year. We've been playing really good hockey.
“Who really knows why it happens? It’s probably a mix of confidence, familiarity, younger guys getting used to playing with each other, guys finding chemistry, and us figuring out who should be playing with whom.”
MacMillan – who was named the NCHC Offensive Player of the Week after its efforts against the RedHawks – has played much of his career on a line with classmate Michael Parks. Over the past four games, sophomore Drake Caggiula has helped complete the productive line for North Dakota, which of late has helped complement the steady offensive contributions from forward Rocco Grimaldi and prolific blueliners Dillon Simpson and Jordan Schmaltz.
Says MacMillan, “The chemistry between me and Mike has been there since our freshman year. It was kind of there instantly, and it's grown since then. Drake's been a great fit over the last four games. He brings an element of hard hockey, he’s hard to play against, and has a great shot. Great ability to make plays.”
MacMillan’s offensive output a week ago could have been even more impressive, had it not been for two goals waived off in the early minutes of Saturday’s game. That of course didn’t slow down North Dakota at all, winning 9-2.
“We wanted a big response on Saturday night, especially after the weekend before [against Nebraska-Omaha],” said MacMillan, whose team, currently in second place behind St. Cloud State, could finish this weekend anywhere from first to sixth in the tight NCHC standings. “It was a focus for us. The disallowed goals didn't discourage us. We stuck to the game plan.”
Of course, it’s likely no surprise to those who know MacMillan that a setback wouldn’t discourage him even a little bit – whether it be a disallowed goal, or a near-injury that last week sent him walking down the tunnel at Ralph Engelstad Arena, only to return shortly after.
After all, MacMillan – a WCHA Scholar-Athlete and an All-WCHA Academic Team selection as a sophomore last season – was recently named one of 18 finalists for the 2014 BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award, specifically for the work he’s done to help others experiencing setbacks.
The Penticton, B.C., native has been a leader and activist for the largest charitable fundraiser in the history of the athletics program at the University of North Dakota – the North Dakota Strong campaign, which has raised over $33,000 for cancer research.
The motivation, for MacMillan, is a highly personal one.
Explains MacMillan, “I went to Coach Hakstol last year because we did a pink jersey game when I was with Alberni Valley [as a junior player]. I asked him if he'd be into that, and he was interested right away. I thought it would be a good idea to get the community involved in the breast cancer campaign, and we did a pink jersey exhibition game that raised awareness.
“For me, it was because I never got to meet my grandmother. She passed away from breast cancer before I was born. Everyone in the world is somehow affected by the disease, knows someone who has had it, or someone close to them has.”
In addition, MacMillan, whose brother Mitch also plays for North Dakota, has two aunts who are survivors of breast cancer – the most common cancer among women in the United States and the leading cause of cancer death among women worldwide.
“It was a big honor to be nominated [for the Humanitarian Award],” continued MacMillan. “But it wasn't just me involved with the fundraiser. The list would go on and on if I named them all.”
MacMillan, certainly, has been a leading example for North Dakota on and off the ice, and between centering one of the strongest lines in the NCHC and championing breast cancer awareness, not to mention plenty of other responsibilities as a junior in college, he’s a busy 22 year old.
So who can blame him if he takes a nap when he can?
And now, not surprisingly, he and North Dakota – as they often are at this crucial time of the season – are clearly wide awake.