The hockey resume of Nolan Sawchuk has a wide range to it.

He played four seasons as a defenseman at Burnsville High School, helped the Blaze reach the state tournament in 2016 and then got named to the illustrious All Hockey Hair Team.

After graduation, Sawchuk played two seasons of junior hockey with the Minot Minotauros of the North American Hockey League and helped them reach the Robertson Cup championship game. He also sharpened the skates for the team that season.

He went on to play the last three seasons for UMass-Lowell, was named to the Hockey East All-Academic Team three times and got through a scary injury as a sophomore.

Having graduated with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and minor in management in the spring, Sawchuk entered the transfer portal and ended up signing with the University of St. Thomas. At St. Thomas, he will enroll in a graduate program in the school of engineering and will be a member of the Tommies' first season as an NCAA Division I hockey team this fall.

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"It's a great hockey program and I have nothing bad to say," Sawchuk said of his time with the River Hawks. "It was a really fun experience playing in Hockey East. College hockey is something that every kid grows up dreaming to play and getting that opportunity to play was something special.

"The (transfer portal) decision came from wanting a bigger opportunity," said Sawchuk, who had eight points and was a minus-1 in 61 career games at UMass-Lowell. "We've been a really good team over the last three seasons. I was in a role there that I enjoyed and tried to do the best in the role that I was given. I just kind of thought I'd have a better opportunity to perform more offensively in a different situation at a different school. I thought I could show my skills a little more in a different spot.

"With graduating, looking to see what graduate programs looked intriguing. With St. Thomas opening up (to Division I), it's a very prestigious school and it's a cool opportunity there."

Rico Blasi, the former Miami University head coach, was introduced as the St. Thomas head coach on April 6. But Sawchuk heard from Tommies assistant coach Nick Bydal before that announcement.

"I talked to a few schools briefly and St. Thomas came a little bit later," said Sawchuk, whose last college game was on March 20. "Once they reached out, it was on the top of my list. I live 20 minutes from the (St. Thomas) Arena (in Mendota Heights) and 25 minutes away from campus. It's been five years of being away from my family and it's a cool opportunity for them to come to games. From a schooling standpoint, it doesn't get much better than this. Once they reached out, they were definitely at the top of my list."


Hockey family

Sawchuk is from a hockey family. His great great uncle was Terry Sawchuk, who played in the NHL from 1949-70. But the Hall of Fame goalie died at age 40, long before the 23-year-old Nolan was born.

Sawchuk's father, Darrin, and mother, Lynn, are both speech/language pathologists for school districts: Darrin in New Prague and Lynn in Lakeville.

Darrin also has been a high school and junior hockey coach. Darrin, who grew up in Winnipeg and is a former junior hockey player, most recently was a volunteer assistant coach at New Prague in 2019-20. Darrin has also served as New Prague's head boys coach (2003-07), been an assistant coach at Lakeville (3 seasons) and Apple Valley (2 seasons) and spent two seasons as the head coach of the Minneapolis Jr. Kodiaks

"He and my mom moved down here in 1994," Sawchuk said. "He coached me growing up. He's really a smart hockey mind. We watched a lot of hockey together growing up, go to Gopher games and a couple (Minnesota) Wild games every year. People talk about hockey IQ and it really improved my hockey IQ.

"Me and my sister, one thing that we pride ourselves in is our hockey IQ: being able to read plays and know the game. Growing up with him, it was a lot of hockey and I wouldn't change it for anything."

Sawchuk's sister, Avery, was on the roster for both the hockey and golf teams in her first year at Augsburg University in 2020-21. Avery played six seasons on the Burnsville girls hockey team and was the captain of the Blaze when they made the state tournament in 2020.

Sawchuk helped the boys team reach the state tournament as a senior in 2016. Burnsville beat St. Thomas Academy 7-1 for the Section 3AA championship and the Blaze advanced to state for the first time since 2007.

"That goes down as one of the coolest experiences of my hockey career," Sawchuk said. "We made really good run in the playoffs and we handled St. Thomas Academy from the start.

"We drew Wayzata in the first round (at state) at the Xcel. It was a packed crowd and it was unbelievable. As a Minnesota kid, to be able to do that was awesome."

And Sawchuk's state tournament introduction was immortalized by GameOn! Minnesota, which does an annual video on the best hockey hair at the tournament. He checks in at No. 6 on the 2016 Minnesota State High School All Hockey Hair Team.

"I had been growing long hair for a few years before that and it was basically nice to get a little notoriety because of it," he said with a laugh. "That was definitely funny. ESPN did a little photo shoot before the tournament and did some different shots with fans blowing through our hair. It was definitely a fun side show."

Sawchuk, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, had 41 points in 58 games his last two seasons at Burnsville.

From Minot to Lowell

But after he graduated from Burnsville, Sawchuk was still looking for an offer to play Division I hockey. He played junior hockey for Minot from 2016-18 and had 52 points, 71 penalty minutes and was a plus-43 in 113 regular season games for the Minotauros.

The Minotauros played in Maya Arena, which added a third sheet of ice in Sawchuk's first season.

"We didn't have an equipment manager there, so it was a manager-by-committee with the team and we all had our duties," he said. "We didn't have anyone to sharpen skates. My dad bought a skate sharpener and we had it for two years at that point. I taught myself how to sharpen skates over the summer and went back to Minot and took over the role of sharpening the guys' skates.

"I guess maybe it wasn't very good the first half of the year because we weren't playing very good," he said of the Minotauros, who finished the regular season 28-26-0-6 before going on a playoff run to the 2018 league championship game. "I was able to figure it out the second half and we made the playoffs.

"I didn't mind it. It's junior hockey and you have no other priorities. I had done enough academically where I didn't have to take any classes or anything ... We'd practice in the morning, work out in the afternoon and then I'd go back to the rink for an hour or two and mess around and sharpen skates."

His second season with Minot, he was recruited by UMass-Lowell and was named to the NAHL All-Central Division Team and the Roberson Cup All-Tournament Team.

Nolan Sawchuk (Courtesy of UMass-Lowell)
Nolan Sawchuk (Courtesy of UMass-Lowell)

His sophomore season with the River Hawks, Sawchuk played in the team's first 23 games and then he suffered a scary injury in a game against Merrimack on Jan. 18, 2020.

"I got hit into the boards at a funny angle and I finished the shift and it felt like a neck strain and I didn't know anything was wrong," he said. "After the hit, I made a D-to-D pass and when I went to the bench, it felt like I had a tweak in my neck. I was about to go out for another shift and there was a stoppage in play and a TV timeout

"Sitting on the bench, I was turning my head to the right and it got stuck and I couldn't turn it any farther. We go to the hospital to get it checked out. One of the scratches was sitting with me after I got an X-ray and the nurse and a doctor came in with a neck brace. I'm thinking, 'Why are they carrying that?' They said we have to put you in a neck brace and it shocked both of us."

He was in the neck brace for six weeks with a fractured vertebra. But everything went fine with his rehabilitation and he played in 15 of the River Haws' 20 games last season.

And now he's going to be back playing home games in his home state and is glad that his second recruiting process did not take long.

"It was definitely stressful," he said. "Compared to my situation in juniors, it was the first time I had multiple schools talking to me. UMass-Lowell was the only team to offer me (an opportunity) at that point in my career. It was kind of a new experience in making a decision.

"It was hard to pass up a new program, the school that St. Thomas is academically and with it being so close to home. We're going to be playing in the CCHA, which is awesome. It was hard to pass that up."

Sawchuk had a cumulative grade-point average of 3.912 as an undergraduate, which includes earning Hockey East's Top Scholar-Athlete honor for compiling a perfect 4.0 GPA for the season as a junior. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA has granted all players who played in 2020-21 an extra season of eligibility, so Sawchuk has two seasons of playing eligibility remaining.

Besides Sawchuk, John Schuldt, a 24-year-old from Minnetonka who has played the last three seasons at Nebraska Omaha, and Trevor Zins, a 22-year-old from St. Michael who was on the roster the last two seasons at St. Cloud State, are defensemen who have decided to transfer to St. Thomas.

Goalie Peter Thome, who played the last four seasons at North Dakota, and forward T.J. Polglaze, who played the last three seasons at Michigan Tech, are the other transfers for St. Thomas so far.

Sawchuk said he knows two forwards who played for the Tommies last season: forwards Andrew Kangas (Mahtomedi) and Grant Loven (East Grand Forks), both of whom he played with his second season with Minot.

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