Opinion corner: College hockey almost hereWell friends, the shorter days and cool mornings can mean only one thing … college hockey is almost here. It’s time for a preview of the new season. We’ll take a look at UND’s schedule, roster changes, the state of the WCHA, and anything noteworthy happening in Division I men’s hockey around the country. Starting off with the just released USA Today preseason poll, the first four spots are filled with familiar names.
By: Mark Schuttenhelm, For The Sun, The Jamestown Sun
Well friends, the shorter days and cool mornings can mean only one thing … college hockey is almost here.
It’s time for a preview of the new season. We’ll take a look at UND’s schedule, roster changes, the state of the WCHA, and anything noteworthy happening in Division I men’s hockey around the country. Starting off with the just released USA Today preseason poll, the first four spots are filled with familiar names.
Reigning national champion Boston College and Minnesota are tied for the No. 1 spot, with a reloaded Michigan team sitting third and UND at number four.
Also making the top 20 out of the WCHA are Denver at No. 8, Minnesota-Duluth at No. 12, and an up and coming Wisconsin squad at No. 15. The preseason WCHA coaches poll has the Gophers first followed by UND at No. 2. Gopher fans, by the way, can breathe a sigh of relief as stud forward Nick Bjugstad returns for another season instead of turning pro. Minnesota hosts Michigan State this weekend.
UND lost five players from last season’s 26-13-3 team, and all were significant contributors. Gone are forwards Brock Nelson and captain Mario Lamoureux, defenseman Ben Blood, and goalies Brad Eidsness and Aaron Dell. Not to worry. Coach Dave Hakstol has brought in an impressive group of recruits this year.
New at the forward position are Drake Caggiula from the Ontario Junior Hockey League, Bryn Chyzyk from the Fargo Force of the USHL, and Coltyn Sanderson of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, who played in the Saskatchewan Junior’s last season. All three players can turn that red light on. Also at forward, last year’s highly touted freshman Rocco Grimaldi will be back after missing most of the season with a knee injury.
Joining an already loaded defense corps is Jordan Schmaltz out of Verona, Wisconsin. He tied for second among USHL defensemen in scoring last season with the Green Bay Gamblers, scoring 41 points in 55 games.
New between the pipes this year are freshman Zane Gothberg out of Thief River Falls, Minn., and transferring up to Grand Forks from the deep south, perhaps the hardest working goalie in college hockey last season, Clarke Saunders from the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Saunders saw more than his share of vulcanized rubber minding the net for the overmatched Huntsville team, singlehandedly keeping many games close that should have been blow outs. It will be interesting to see how he handles the typical workload of a UND goalie, 20-25 shots a game.
While we’re discussing players we must address the suspension’s resulting from a team party apparently run amok recently. Suspended for the season opener are defenseman Andrew MacWilliam and forwards Corban Knight, Danny Kristo, Carter Rowney, and Brendan O’Donnell.
Suspended for the next night’s game are forwards Kristo, Connor Gaarder, and Stephane Pattyn, as well as defenseman Andrew Panzarella.
If it sounds to you like a lot of talent will be missing from the lineup that first weekend, you’re right. The lapse in judgement on the part of these players has taken a rather easy early season schedule and made it quite a bit more difficult.
Regarding the schedule, it seemed like a perfect first two weekends for a team that historically starts slowly.
Kicking off the season with the Alaska Gold Rush tournament on Oct 19 and 20, facing Alaska-Anchorage and the University of Alaska, followed by a pair at home against Alaska-Anchorage the next weekend. This should have provided the team with a 4-0 or 3-1 start, but with so many impact players suspended for the first pair, we’ll just have to see how it plays out.
Hockey East powerhouse Boston University invades the Ralph the following weekend, so a quick start against the Alaska teams is a must, in my opinion. In addition to Boston U, the non-conference schedule includes matchups with a tough Notre Dame team and a somewhat easier series with Holy Cross.
The toughest part of the schedule runs from mid-November to early December. The Fighting North Dakotans will have to face Minnesota-Duluth, Notre Dame, Colorado College, and Denver on consecutive weekends, with the Notre Dame and CC series’ being on the road. As we reported here last year, UND will find themselves outdoors on Feb. 9, playing the University of Nebraska-Omaha at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
There’ll be plenty of other outdoor action in the college ranks this season as well. On Feb., 17, the Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field features a fantastic doubleheader with Wisconsin taking on Minnesota and Notre Dame playing Miami.
The Great Lakes Invitational, a holiday tournament usually played indoors in Detroit, will be played out in the elements at Comerica Park this year. The all-Michigan tournament features Michigan Tech vs. Michigan and Michigan State vs. Western Michigan on Dec. 28, with the winners and losers squaring off on Dec. 29.
It saddens me to have to write that this season will be the end of the line for the WCHA as we have known and loved it. The WCHA, along with the CCHA and Hockey East, are the ‘power conferences’ of Division I college hockey.
The conference that North Dakota has called home for so many years will face major changes come next season.
The WCHA will lose North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Minnesota and Wisconsin after this season, the first six heading off to start up the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the last two starting up the Big Ten Hockey Conference. Replacing those extremely successful programs will be the University of Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, and Northern Michigan.
No disrespect intended here, especially to the three quality programs from Michigan, but that is a big step backwards. But it could be worse. The CCHA, arguably the strongest conference from top to bottom last year, will totally disband after this season.
Most of us will likely be NCHC or Big Ten Conference fans next season. Since history and tradition are extremely important to me, I won’t necessarily be all that happy about it. For now, I plan on enjoying the heck out of UND’s last season in the WCHA.
Mark Schuttenhelm is a regular contributor to the Opinion Corner