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OK, we all get it. We’re not allowed to call the men’s hockey team at the University of North Dakota the Fighting Sioux any more. In fact, the rules are that we can’t call them Sioux, either. And at UND, they can’t sell any jerseys or sports souvenirs that depict the proud Native American being honored by UND’s sports teams.
So the lobbyists, activists and political corrective types won the battle. After a couple of nickname-less years, a vote determined that the new nickname would be “Fighting Hawks.” I don’t know about you, but I have to strain to say, or write, Fighting Hawks when I’m talking about the team formerly known as Fighting Sioux.
It all came to a new perspective last weekend in Tampa, Fla., where North Dakota, fresh from winning the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati, played brilliantly to get past National Collegiate Hockey Conference rival Denver, the West Regional winner in St. Paul, in the semifinals of the NCAA Frozen Four. Blake Caggiula, specializing in big goals throughout the Frozen Four, was named tournament MVP after scoring twice in each game.
His scoring put North Dakota up 2-0, but Denver came back and caught UND at 3-3 in the third period. At that point, it appeared Denver had simply taken over the game. North Dakota was on its heels and couldn’t seem to get back on its favored offensive roll. But late in the game, Nick Schmaltz, the center on the superb CBS Line with wingers Caggiula and Brock Boeser, won a right corner faceoff and got the puck back for a shot by Caggiula. It was blocked in front, but there was Schmaltz, methodically but efficiently pouncing on the rebound, stepping past the goaltender, and tucking in a backhand for the go-ahead goal.
Had the goal come with four or five minutes left, Denver might have come right back. But only 56 seconds remained, time only for a long empty-net fling by UND to stop Denver’s last hope.
That put North Dakota up against Quinnipiac, the ECAC champ and winner of the Eastern Regional, and the team ranked No. 1 in the nation. Despite those credentials, Boston College was favored. I thought the Quinnipiac-Boston College game would be a toss-up, but Quinnipiac dominated at the start, jumping ahead 2-0 and outshooting BC 7-1 in the opening minutes. BC got a goal back, but Quinnipic countered to gain a 3-1 lead. A handful of power plays awarded to BC allowed the Eagles to cut into what had been a dominant performance by Quinnipiac, and when BC scored again to cut it to 3-2, Quinnipiac held on and prevailed to reach the final.
With a day off between the semifinals and final at the sold out Tampa facility where the NHL Lightning play, everything stayed in order, and the complete attention to detail of UND coach Brad Berry became more evident. Berry, in his first year after replacing Dave Hakstol, who left UND to try his hand at coaching the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL, is, like Hakstol, a former Fighting Sioux player under coach Gino Gasparini from decades past. They aren’t alone. UMD coach Scott Sandelin is another, and so is his assistant, Jason Herter. So, too, is Nebraska Omaha coach Dean Blais, who coached North Dakota when they were still Fighting Sioux and before Hakstol took the reins.
Berry, with everything in order all season, made a phone call to Gino Gasparini, asking if Gino and his wife would like to climb onto the team charter flight to Tampa. Naturally, Gasparini accepted. Not only that, at the Friday night team dinner. Gasparini – whose Sioux won NCAA titles 1980, 1982 and 1987 – gave an inspirational speech to the players.
My own pick was that UND’s speed and the brilliant goaltending of Cam Johnson would prevail 5-3 over Quinnipiac. I was wrong. It was 5-1. As impressive as the Bobcats had looked all season, through the Northeast Regional, and against Boston College in the semifinals, they had no answer for UND’s speed, and the precision attack sparked by the CBS Line.
Every shot of the full-house crowd at Amalie Arena showed the inescapable vision of thousands of UND fans wearing “Sioux” jerseys, tee-shirts, and caps. If you didn’t see it, you could also hear, throughout the game, the big crowd chanting “Let’s Go, Sioux!” Over and over. Inescapable.
But if you believe in karma, there was still more. Dave Hakstol, frustrated at challenging for national titles every year but unable to capture one, went to Philadelphia. A month into the season, the Flyers were struggling. They were 6-14 on October 21, and the know-it-all types like Mike Milbury on national TV said, “You can’t expect a guy to come out of college coaching and step right into the NHL.”
On January 2, Hakstol’s Flyers were 15-22 – a long way from contending in the easy-points league where losing in overtime gets you one inflationary point. But then a funny thing happened. The Flyers started winning. They played better, and they won. They rose to respectability, then into contention. On the last weekend, last weekend, the Flyers had to win to bypass Boston and make the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 8 team.
To get ready for the North Dakota-Quinnipiac final, I spent a lot of time watching the Masters Golf Tournament, and some of the Minnesota Wild’s last game, and I also caught some of the Flyers game, when they beat red-hot Pittsburgh 3-1 to clinch the final playoff spot. The same guys who were saying that nobody could come out of college and coach well in the NHL immediately now are saying Hakstol should be considered for coach of the year.
During the nationally televised Pittsburgh game, Pierre McGuire interviewed Hakstol, and at the end of the interview, McGuire mentioned that Hakstol’s old team, North Dakota, was about to play for the national championship. Asked if he had anything to say about that, Hakstol – freed now, from the shackles of UND orders and political correctness – calmly said: “Go Sioux!”
What could be more appropriate than old coach Dave Hakstol makes the NHL playoffs on the same day that his former team at North Dakota wins the NCAA championship? It’s one of the rare cases where a coaching change clicked for both teams – one in the NHL and one in Grand Forks.