Walk On to Walk Off
Gaarder's Heroics Send North Dakota to Frozen Four
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
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CINCINNATI For a team that dressed a dozen NHL draft picks in Saturday’s NCAA Midwest Regional final against Ferris State, it was, of course, a 5-foot-10 undrafted and largely unheralded former walk-on that stole the show for the region’s No. 4 seed, North Dakota.
Junior forward Connor Gaarder, who helps anchor North Dakota’s checking line, slid the puck – which had recently been directed to the net by defenseman Paul LaDue – past Ferris State goaltender C.J. Motte on the team’s first shot of the second overtime period.
It was also Gaarder’s only shot of the game – fittingly. The third-line center has made a habit of only needing one shot, and making the most of it. The Edina, Minn., native was recruited by assistant coach Dane Jackson and as a freshman ultimately made the team as a walk-on.
On Saturday, now a junior and with the game tied at 1-1, Gaarder scored the biggest goal of his career and certainly the most substantial of North Dakota’s wild season.
“It is fitting for this group,” said North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol, who is 14-4 all-time in NCAA regional play and will lead his team to its sixth Frozen Four in his 10 seasons at the helm in Grand Forks. “It’s a little bit of an unheralded group. We’ve had different guys stepping forward on a regular basis. Coming into tonight, we said it would probably be someone different than last night.
“Connor Gaarder shows up every night and plays for the jersey. It was nice to see him have that type of reward.”
In the immediate moments after the game, Gaarder, standing outside the locker room with teammates walking by – “Connor Gaarder!” one exclaimed incredulously, underscoring the unpredictability of the game’s hero – could barely remember the details of the goal.
“After that went in, I kind of blacked out for a little bit there,” managed Gaarder, who was also 9-for-14 on faceoff draws prior to his OT winner, the 16th goal of his career. “It felt great – the weight off our shoulders. We felt a lot of pressure going into the locker room.”
Gaarder is the grandson of former Minnesota Vikings head coach Jerry Burns, who led the team from 1986 to 1991 and whose tenure included a 1987 NFC championship game appearance. And Gaarder has carried some of his grandfather’s lessons forward in Grand Forks.
“He always tells me to work hard,” said Gaarder, “that the opportunity will come, that you just have to keep working hard, be confident, and take advantage of the opportunities that come to you. I’ve kind of rolled with that.”
Now, Gaarder and North Dakota roll on to the NCAA Frozen Four, where the semifinals begin April 10 in Philadelphia. It’s all part of a season for Gaarder that began with no points in his first 11 games of the campaign, then 15 in his next 28 – very much mirroring the trajectory of the North Dakota team as a whole.
“I think my game overall has become better since my freshman year now that I’m a junior. Most of my goals are getting to the front of the net, standing in front of the net, and pounding them in there.
“I’ve stuck with my game all year. I was a little cold at the beginning of the year, but I was still playing really good hockey – doing the small things that needed to be done to help the team win, blocking shots, getting pucks out, getting pucks in, helping the grind game.”
Saturday, North Dakota was able to grind out another one-goal win – punctuated by Gaarder’s goal in sudden death overtime.
“I’m not known as a goal-scorer,” he said after his walk-off win, smiling.
Well, he is now.