Not Far From the Tree
Family Ties for UND Freshmen Run Deep
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Grand Forks, named for the nearby forking of the Red River and the Red Lake River, is the third-largest city in North Dakota – which is to say, it’s really not a particularly big town. And with the closest major U.S. professional sports franchise over 300 miles away – in the rival state of Minnesota anyhow – many who grow up in Grand Forks understandably consider the University of North Dakota’s men’s ice hockey team the only major sports attraction they need.
Certainly, that was the case for Grand Forks natives and current North Dakota freshmen Luke Johnson and Paul LaDue – two of only three North Dakota natives on the team. But Johnson, a forward, and LaDue, a defenseman, have much more in common than just their hometown. They’re also cousins, having shared birthday parties and Thanksgiving meals, and they’ve played together through high school, juniors, and now at the dawn of their college hockey careers as well.
And this week in Philadelphia, with a semifinal showdown against archrival and No. 1 overall seed Minnesota set for Thursday night, they’ll play – together – in one of the most anticipated games in the storied history of the team they grew up revering.
“I was a huge [North Dakota] fan, going to every game on Friday and Saturday nights, any game I could make it to,” says LaDue, a 2012 sixth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings. “I sat right by the bench, and it was pretty special putting on the uniform for the first time and getting to play in that building. Growing up, I always wanted to play for [North Dakota]. There are a couple [Minnesota/North Dakota games] I'll never forget. My buddies and I always used to go to those – it was special.”
Added Johnson, “I went to the Frozen Four in '07 in St. Louis. Seeing all the North Dakota teams that have come through and have made it to the Frozen Four – it gets us really excited to be one of those teams and hopefully bring back the championship. ... When I got the opportunity to commit here, I was so excited to hopefully be in this position one day and hopefully do something special.”
Bringing a national championship banner back to Grand Forks is of course the goal for everyone involved with the North Dakota program this week. But for Johnson, he’s trying to become the second immediate family member to accomplish the feat.
Luke’s father, Steve Johnson, played for the 1987 North Dakota team that beat Harvard and Michigan State at the Frozen Four en route to one of the program’s seven national titles. Johnson’s teammates on the ’87 team included Hobey Baker winner Tony Hrkac and goaltender Ed Belfour, now a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Steve Johnson more recently served as an assistant coach at rival NCHC programs St. Cloud State and Nebraska-Omaha. Prior to that, from 1996 to 2006, he coached the Lincoln (Nebraska) Stars of the USHL, the junior team on which both Luke Johnson and LaDue played – though with Luke’s uncle, Chad, as their coach – prior to joining North Dakota.
“It helped me and Paul out a lot having my dad and my uncle around,” says Luke, also an NHL draft pick (2013 5th round, Chicago Blackhawks), of his family ties. “They know so much about hockey and have been around the game for so long. Any little tidbit they can offer really helped us.”
Added LaDue about Luke’s father, “He taught us a lot. It was good to have him around, giving me advice, and helping me out through the process. Obviously it was pretty cool that he got to bring a banner home, and hopefully we can do the same.”
Thus far, both cousins have enjoyed considerable success during their rookie campaigns. And fittingly for the pair that’s been on-ice partners since playing for Grand Forks Central High School – which sits about two miles from North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena – Johnson and LaDue are currently tied for the team lead in scoring among freshmen, each with 21 points heading into this week’s Frozen Four.
“It's been great. I love playing with him,” says LaDue of his cousin. “Obviously he's a forward, so we're competing against each other every practice, trying to make each other better, obviously battling against each other. It's been fun.”
Added Johnson, who’s about two years younger, “Growing up with Paul, playing on his team from high school to now, we've really pushed ourselves and have really helped each other out along the way. With him pushing me every day to work harder and compete with him, that has really helped me develop as a player.”
Against Minnesota in Thursday’s national semifinal, Johnson will play on the right wing on a North Dakota line that includes dynamic sophomore center and team-leading scorer Rocco Grimaldi, in addition to 6-foot-1, 208-pound left winger Stephane “General” Pattyn.
“Rocco has some great hockey sense and can find me wherever I am on the ice,” said Johnson. “Pattyn certainly brings a lot of physicality to our line, is there to win battles along the walls, in the corners, or wherever he is. It's really nice playing with those guys, and they really make it easy for me for sure.”
Meanwhile, LaDue heads to Philadelphia after compiling three assists at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Cincinnati last weekend, including a helper on Connor Gaarder’s dramatic double overtime game-winner that sent North Dakota to the Frozen Four. LaDue’s production, of course, has been notable in that it has come from the blueline – as part of a defensive corps that led the nation this season in points per game. The former USHL Defenseman of the Year led all NCHC freshman in plus-minus rating this season (plus-12 in conference games) and compiled the most points by a North Dakota freshman defenseman since 2005-06 (current Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Brian Lee).
Says LaDue of his personal second-half surge, “I just kind of got my confidence back a little bit from juniors, and that kind of helped.”
With confidence at a season-high, next up, of course, is Thursday’s matchup with Minnesota, with a trip to the national championship game on the line. And as the Frozen Four approaches, and in the mold of their coach Dave Hakstol, it’s all very clearly a business-like mentality for LaDue and Johnson – playing for their hometown team that’s certainly no stranger to the grand stage of the NCAA championships.
For these two, though, heading to Philadelphia may mean even more, looking to bring a title back home to Grand Forks.
Doing so, after all, is a part of the family business.