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UND continually a contender

Men's hockey team in NCAA regionals for twelfth straight season

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North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol, top, coaches his team in this file photo.

HYOUNG CHANG, THE DENVER POST FILES Enlarge Image

North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol, top, coaches his team in this file photo.

An impressive streak continues this weekend when the University of North Dakota's men's hockey team heads for the NCAA regionals.

It's UND's 12th straight appearance, the longest active streak in U.S. college hockey.

Think about it. Twelve years in a row navigating the roster turnover and the injuries and the early signings and all the other rotations of sports fortune to be among the nation's final 16 teams.

Five times since head coach Dave Hakstol took over in 2004 has UND advanced to the Frozen Four. If a sixth appearance awaits Hakstol and his team after this weekend's regional tournament in Cincinnati, it will be a remarkable rally over and around the latest minefield that has hit UND and other schools: recruiting disasters.

Decisions and commitments to hockey programs in both U.S. college hockey and the Canadian Hockey League often change. This is reality.

But in recent times, the CHL has had ample success in attracting quality players who were either committed or enrolled south of the border.

In UND's case, the team could look a lot different today and certainly not worse had some or all of the recent defectors panned out.

It started in 2011 when J.T. Miller, a first-round pick of the New York Rangers that June, opted for the CHL instead of UND. In 2012, Hakstol might have developed an ulcer after finding out Miles Koules, Brendan Lemieux and eventual New Jersey first-round pick Stefan Matteau bailed on commitments in order to play junior in Canada.

And at the Christmas break this season, UND lost forward Adam Tambellini, who after half a season, went to play with the Western Hockey League's Calgary Hitmen.

So UND's 23-12-3 mark this season -- after the customary slow start in Grand Forks -- doesn't look too bad in that lens.

Plus, the upheaval in the U.S. college hockey leagues in the last year with the formation of the Big Ten hockey league, North Dakota's move to the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and the disappearance of the CCHA has to leave folks such as Hakstol wondering just where the new reality is headed.

"Recruiting has always been extremely competitive," Hakstol said recently. "I don't think (the new league) has changed recruiting a whole lot. The new league has definitely given us a great base to recruit from. Developmentally, if you want to look at a competitive atmosphere for a player to develop within, just look at our (teams)."

The NCHC was ultra-competitive this season and included three lower seeds winning in the first playoff round. UND survived the first round but sixth-seeded Denver won the league playoffs.

In terms of recruits changing their minds, it's not all that uncommon. And UND isn't the only school affected. Michigan, for instance, was left holding an empty bag two years ago when highly touted goalie John Gibson chose the Ontario Hockey League. The Wolverines have missed the NCAA tournament two years in a row.

No white flag is going up in Grand Forks despite the sting of recent defections to the CHL. UND continues to ice contenders of varying abilities; some with skilled players the likes of current NHLers Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie and others more like this year's collection of more grinders than not.

"It doesn't change anything," said Hakstol, who has a winning record in each of his 10 seasons at UND and a percentage well north of .600. "Personally it tells me we have to do a better job of getting the right people here.

"We've had two players that changed their minds, in my mind two significant players, before they got to campus and then we lost a player in January.

"That tells me in those three cases, we have to do a better job of having commitments to the right players and people.

"There always has been (uncertainty). That's recruiting. The CHL does an excellent job. They have an outstanding product and they do an excellent job of recruiting, as do we here at North Dakota. We have a great product, we have a great track record of development and we work hard on our recruiting."

 

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2014 D2

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