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UND's Canadian experiment

Hockey program looks for victory north of 49th

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They've blown a few tires on the rocky road during the first half of the NCAA men's hockey season, but the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux have done one important thing.

They've survived.

UND, which has its youngest roster in years, finds itself 7-7 in the WCHA and 9-8-1 overall after winning five of their last six games.

Ten players are gone from last year's squad, including Winnipeg Jets prospect Jason Gregoire and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Matt Frattin.

"I think in terms of the development of our team, it's been a good first half," said UND coach Dave Hakstol, in Winnipeg this week to drum up interest for a Jan. 7 game at the MTS Centre between North Dakota and Clarkson University.

"A month ago, we were kind of on the brink of being in a pretty tough situation. We've battled our way out of that, got our heads above water again and we're starting to figure out what we are as a team.

"Looking at us going into the second half, we control our own destiny and though we're not in great shape, we do control it and I like the direction our team is heading."

The Fighting Sioux -- a nickname to be retired shortly for a variety of reasons, it's worth noting -- have also battled injuries, a luxury they really don't have if they're headed for a sixth appearance in the Frozen Four since Hakstol became head coach in 2004.

Winnipeg product Brendan O'Donnell has missed six games and top offensive prospect Rocco Grimaldi, a second-round pick of the Florida Panthers last June, has played just four times.

Grimaldi is possible for the Winnipeg game but is more likely to return later in January, Hakstol said.

UND will be facing Clarkson for the first time. The Golden Knights are 3-4-2 in ECAC play this season, and 9-7-2 overall.

It's UND's first game in Canada in 59 years and it's believed to be the first time an in-season game between NCAA teams has been played outside the U.S.

"We're coming up here on a business trip," Hakstol said Wednesday. "Non-conference play is very important in your opportunity to get into the national tournament."

The idea to bring an in-season NCAA game to Winnipeg was hatched about four years ago, long before the NHL decided to return to the Manitoba capital.

But Hakstol said Wednesday that the point of the exercise remains as valid as ever.

"It's a city that we have a long history with," Hakstol said. "We've had a lot of players come through our program from Winnipeg and Manitoba.

"My question is why haven't we done it before? Our coaching staff is from different parts of Western Canada. I think it's important to try to come and play a game somewhere in Western Canada and the natural fit is here at the MTS Centre.

"I think a lot of people from Winnipeg and Manitoba have been down to UND and to games in our building. We have a significant number of alums here and it just seems to be a great fit."

Hakstol and several UND officials were in attendance at the NHL game Tuesday between the Jets and the Minnesota Wild.

They may not be expecting the same buzz for an NCAA game on "neutral" ground, but it's clear this is a hockey-mad market.

"It's going to be a lot of fun to bring our guys up here and play a game in that building and most importantly in this city," Hakstol said.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2011 C13

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