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'Will is just Will': Mentality of Moorhead grad and Olympian Borgen like none other

Former Moorhead Spuds hockey standout and Team USA defenseman Will Borgen, center, with his two best friends Alex Schmidt, left, and Trey Greene from their high school hockey days. Submitted photo1 / 4
St. Cloud State’s Will Borgen skates against the University of Minnesota-Duluth during the first period Nov. 4, 2017, at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.2 / 4
Former Moorhead Spuds hockey standout and Team USA defenseman Will Borgen in his younger hockey days. Submitted photo3 / 4
Moorhead High School graduate Will Borgen is a member of the U.S.A. men's hockey team competing in the Winter Olympics this month in South Korea. Team USA photo4 / 4

MOORHEAD, Minn.—There's a baffling calm to Will Borgen. His eyes do not widen when the moment gets bright. In fact, he doesn't blink.

Those closest to the former Moorhead Spuds hockey standout and St. Cloud State defenseman don't know how to explain him. At a young age, Borgen would shrug his shoulders when his dad would try to convince him how cool it was that he just got a phone call from NHLer Matt Cullen telling him when to meet at the rink. He does the same now when his dad asks him if he talks to NHL hall of famer Chris Chelios on the phone a lot.

He was at his mom's condo with four friends when he was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL draft. He saw his name on the TV screen, stood up and told his buddies they were going to the lake.

Trey Greene, a best friend of Borgen since first grade and former Moorhead hockey teammate, was getting dinner with Borgen when he got the phone call informing him he was selected for the U.S. men's hockey team. Borgen, who couldn't say anything at the time, didn't flinch.

"That's just astonishing to me," Greene said. "I would have lost it."

His mom simply explains Borgen as "Will is just Will."

And maybe that's just it. We aren't Will. To Borgen, we're the weird ones, unable to avoid a gleeful smile when a professional athlete gives us the time of day or our name gets any kind of public recognition. His other best friend Alex Schmidt, also a former Moorhead hockey teammate, jokes he doesn't show emotion like a normal human being. Perhaps he's right or maybe it's just Borgen is not afraid of anything.

"I think that is truly his mentality," said Bill, Borgen's dad. "I asked him when he first went out to Buffalo for a camp if he was nervous and he looked at me like why would I be nervous. I'm amazed by it, his whole attitude about everything that's happened."

Borgen has no fear on the ice, even shrugging off having his neck cut by a skate before his senior season at Moorhead because "it wasn't squirting." Greene heard him ask the kid next to him on the bench if he had a cut on his neck. Greene said everyone freaked out but Borgen, who was also playing with a broken wrist in that hockey tournament.

Borgen wanted to play the next day.

It doesn't matter if it's a card game, a video game, hockey or soccer, competition is where another side of Borgen emerges.

"I think he enjoys competing more than the actual sport of hockey," Spuds head coach Jon Ammerman said. "He's most comfortable on the ice. That's where he shows emotion. A lot of it is aggression. Off the ice, he's just an easy-going guy, who rolls with the punches and goes about his business."

Greene knows all about the aggression, as Borgen broke his rib with a check and his thumb with a slash in practice in high school.

"I would describe it just how it looks. It's not fun," Greene said when asked what getting hit by Borgen feels like. "When people look at him you don't see the strength until you watch him use it."

His hits do much more of the talking than his words. Media looking for a sound bite or a deeper look into Borgen with an interview, look somewhere else. He's not here to wow with a quote or give a deep story about himself. That's just not him. Borgen is here to play hockey. He's not big on discussing things like when his No. 19, which he picked because his birthday is Dec. 19, was already taken at St. Cloud State. He took No. 20 because that was his grandpa's favorite number. Chuck Mjoen's birthday was May 20, and he died almost exactly two months to the day before his grandson was drafted in the NHL. Borgen will wear No. 20 with Team USA.

"He meant a lot to me," Borgen said. "He would always come to all my games. He liked watching. He was just a happy guy. That's about it."

Ammerman loves watching video of interviews with Borgen at St. Cloud State, knowing the reporter has no idea what they're getting into.

"He's a tough interview," Ammerman said. "He doesn't let his guard down to people he doesn't know. I think Will has a good perspective on things. Yeah, he's having success and he's really skilled, but he's just a hockey player doing his thing. I don't think he expects or wants attention. He cares passionately and he has a really close network of people he cares for immensely."

Each person in the network has a moment where they saw briefly the other side of Borgen. Schmidt remembers when they were seniors and the Spuds lost in the section championship. He was giving everyone hugs in the locker room, not expecting much when approaching Borgen's locker. He was wrong, as Borgen jumped up and gave him a huge hug.

"We had a moment there even though it sucked," Schmidt said.

Greene remembers when he was younger and his dad fell and cracked his head open and was rushed to the hospital. Borgen and his mom spent the entire day with him to keep his mind off his dad.

"He didn't say anything," Greene said. "He was just there for me."

The spotlight is something Borgen may never get used to. It still feels weird to him that Moorhead kids wear shirts with his name on the back and want his stick or a picture with him or his autograph. Going from hoping to play for a junior hockey team to being drafted in the NHL and in the Olympics in a three-year span, Borgen feels more like those kids than the Cullens, Chris VandeVeldes or Brian Lees of the Moorhead hockey world he's become.

"I'm obviously excited for this," Borgen said of the Olympics. "It's just everything has happened for me and worked out really well the last three years. I can't complain. Everything has happened ... it's hard to describe. I've gotten lucky with how it's all worked out."

Borgen says the plan is to stay four years at St. Cloud State before heading to Buffalo. Wherever he ends up, he knows he'll always give back to Moorhead. Borgen said he felt like he heard from everyone in Moorhead when he was announced on the U.S. roster.

"It's kind of hard to explain," Borgen said. "It feels like you should do whatever you can for Moorhead because the older guys before like Matt, VandeVelde, the Lees, they've all given back to Moorhead. I've gotten free ice my whole life, so, yeah, it's somewhere you like to go and give back to the community and help out the younger kids.

"I just hope if (the younger kids) want to play and do stuff like this they'll work, and in the summer we'll be there to help them. Hopefully, this shows them they can do anything they want to do too."

So that's Will. There's a good chance he's smiling, an almost devious smile, at this attempt to explain him. He's smiling like he knows something no one else does. Maybe he does. Maybe that's why he's playing against Slovenia at 6:10 a.m. on Wednesday with the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team.

"I always told Will I don't need a good hockey player. I need a good man," said Lori, his mom. "He doesn't have a shrine in his room or anything. We have always just tried to keep him grounded and downplay stuff.

"I know he's proud he was drafted because he has his draft jersey and he's glad he has that. I know he was excited when he made the Olympic team. That was a kind of excitement I'd never seen in him. But, really, he's still just Will."

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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