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O'Donnell searching for game

Former Winnipeg Blues star finds going tough in soph year at UND

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The clock is ticking into its 11th month since Brendan O'Donnell was starting to feel he had a foothold in the transition to NCAA hockey.

As a freshman at the University of North Dakota, the Winnipeg native had five goals in the first half of the season and was mattering in more games than not.

Then the left-winger was felled by a shoulder injury in January that cost him the rest of the season.

Although he's back on the ice and in the UND lineup, it still feels at times as if there's grease on every rung of the ladder back to his game.

This is one difficult spot for the 20-year-old, who it seems has always known what it's like to contribute offensively.

He was the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's rookie of the year in 2009-10 when he scored 61 points in 53 games for the Winnipeg Blues.

He went to the BCHL the next season and led the league in power-play goals, 18, while putting up 72 points in 58 games.

Now, 15 games into his second UND season and working on the team's third line, he sits at one goal and five points in 15 games.

"I expect a lot out of myself -- more than anyone else does," O'Donnell said last weekend, enduring another pair of games without scoring as his team was taking three of four points from Denver.

"I just have to keep working at it, working hard, doing the little things in each game, like being strong on pucks, getting it out and not worrying about scoring points. If I keep at it, it'll come. (The coaches) just tell me to get a solid base-game going, like being strong on pucks, getting pucks out of the zone, stuff like that."

O'Donnell's rediscovery of his game will be important to UND, currently blessed with the production of rookie Rocco Grimaldi.

There is clearly some level of concern, but UND head coach Dave Hakstol said what's helping is O'Donnell's maturation.

"It's really knowing what he is as a player and consistently bringing that work ethic and the confidence to the rink," Hakstol said. "He's had some struggles this year. Right now, I think he's had his best week of practice of the season, but that doesn't always lead to the immediate payoffs. But usually it's a good sign of what's to come.

"I think it's been a bit of a hard process for Brendan in the first half. Things haven't come easy. But he'll work his way through it, and like I said, it all starts with putting back-to-back days of practice and good weeks of practice together."

There were many setbacks from O'Donnell's shoulder injury, the coach said.

"He was just starting to get over the hump, I thought," he said.

"Then his season was ended. Not only did that take him out of the meat of the season, the most important part of the season in terms of the experience you're going to gain, but you also have to remember it took him out of a lot of physical training during the summer.

"That's a real key issue for young guys coming in here, and definitely it's an issue for Brendan."

The silver lining for the 2010 sixth-round pick of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning may have been some off-ice experiences.

"Last year, I got to experience things more from a fan's perspective," O'Donnell said. "I think that helped me a lot in terms of not many players get to watch as many games as I did. I experienced the fans, saw the passion, being up there in the top row for every game.

"We got to see that -- what brings it all together, what the community's about for North Dakota and the passion they have. And I got to watch guys who were really good players and going about their business and how they play.

"I'd been to games before here. Once you're on the team, you know more about the Fighting Sioux tradition and how much that means to the fans."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2012 C3

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