Gut-Wrenching End to North Dakota's Season
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
PHILADELPHIA After patiently fielding questions from the media following Thursday’s gut-wrenching loss to Minnesota at the Frozen Four — the game winner coming shorthanded with 0.6 seconds left — three of North Dakota’s team leaders walked together, slowly, back to their locker room.
Captain Dillon Simpson, who has played in more college hockey games than any other defenseman at this year’s Frozen Four, walked in the middle. Junior Stephane Pattyn walked to his left, while Nick Mattson – Simpson’s defensive partner – walked to his right.
And though they walked separately, they walked very evidently together – arms around one another – with Simpson, fittingly for a player who leads his team in minutes by a large margin, in the middle of it all.
As the players reached their locker room area, they dispersed, pulled in different directions for more postgame responsibilities. It was at this time that Craig Simpson, Dillon’s father and former two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers, found his son, embracing him – sharing a private moment in what has been a very public spring for his son. For the team captain who led his team to the NCAA Frozen Four.
That team he led features 14 NHL draft picks, a fact that implies talent in all facets of the lineup – talent on an individual level, though, and that talent, as has been well-documented, wasn’t enough early in the season. North Dakota was 4-7-2 after its opening stretch, and changed its course after a now-infamous players’ only meeting.
That night, it seemed, the individuals – the teammates on paper – finally became a team, and since then, Simpson helped steer the UND ship in the direction of Philadelphia this week.
“Top to bottom it’s a team that cares about each other,” said Simpson afterward, still wearing his familiar No. 18 jersey. “We’re a family in that locker room, from a guy who might play 30 minutes a game to a guy who’s sitting out of the lineup. Everyone goes to battle every night. The main focus every night is to battle for your teammates, to do it for one another.
“I’m extremely proud of how the entire team came together and how much we became a close unit throughout the year.”
Simpson is one of four seniors who will graduate this spring. The other senior who played in Thursday’s national semifinal against rival Minnesota was Derek Rodwell, the only North Dakota player to suit up in two different Frozen Fours. It’s a small class, but one that’s meant a lot.
Said junior forward Mark MacMillan, “It’s hard to say goodbye. Every year there’s always a great group of seniors, and it’s no different this year. We had [Simpson] back there, it seemed like he was playing the whole game every game and wears his heart on his sleeve and leads by example all the time. We have three other guys that did what they needed to do every night and were always there to support the team.
“It’s always hard to say goodbye to them.”
After the game, Simpson, the youngest captain for North Dakota since 1991-92, was already able to put the season in some type of a perspective – less than an hour after he literally dropped to his knees in front of his goaltender, with Justin Holl’s buzzer-beater of a game-winner lying in the back of the net that he has so arduously defended for his entire career.
“We got a lot of young guys who learned a lot this year, who went through the process this season, having to battle back the way we did,” said Simpson, of the lessons that next year’s team can take from the 2013-14 team. “Playing really hard in close games against really good teams down the stretch gives a lot of experience for a young team going into next year.”
Simpson led the nation in blocked shot during the season. He blocked several on Thursday as well.
For the Edmonton Oilers draft pick, that’s been all part of the fun.
“First and foremost, we had to embrace the challenge and enjoy it,” continued Simpson. “We’re a team in there that, you know, we thrive on having fun, we thrive on adversity. You have to keep your heads level-headed throughout a game, throughout a season. Tonight, that was the mindset of our team.”
For that team, the season came to an end on Thursday, with Holl’s last-second goal ending North Dakota’s 2013-14 season.
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol has, of course, gone through these before, though it doesn't make it easier. He's been to six Frozen Fours in 10 years behind the bench, and hasn't won yet, including five straight semifinal defeats.
Said Hakstol, “It’s painful to have it end this way for those guys as well as this particular group of players, who are an outstanding group of teammates who became an outstanding team.”
Years from now, despite Thursday’s loss, that may be all that matters.