ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The ribbing of Kevin Fitzgerald began ... on his recruiting visit to St. Cloud State.
Fitzgerald was a 20-year-old forward playing junior hockey for the Aberdeen Wings in the North American Hockey League at the time. It was in January 2017, but he still hears about it from his teammates on the Huskies men's team.
"Everyone made fun of me because they thought I was a scout or something," said Fitzgerald, who claims he was carrying a folder from institutional representative Bill Hudson around on his visit. "They always say I wore a suit on my visit, which is so not true... I had a folder that Huddy gave me.
"That's when the messing with Fitzy officially started was on my (recruiting) visit," he said with a laugh. "It has not stopped."
Fitzgerald and the Huskies (10-10-2-1 NCHC, 13-13-6 overall) have a big series this weekend when they take on fifth-ranked Minnesota Duluth (15-5-2-0, 20-10-2). The teams play at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena in Duluth in the last series of the regular season.
UMD is nearly locked into the No. 2 spot for the conference playoffs, but St. Cloud State goes into the weekend two points behind fourth-place Western Michigan (10-9-3-2, 16-13-5) and four points behind third-place Denver (10-8-4-3, 20-9-5). The top four teams at the end of the regular season will play host to a best-of-three series in the NCHC playoffs the following weekend.
"I'm really looking forward to it and and I know, as a team, we're really looking forward to the challenge," Fitzgerald said of playing the two-time defending NCAA Division I champions. "It's that time of year where it's playoff hockey every game. We're really excited about that. Everyone wants to be in these type of games.
"Every game from here on out is do or die."
Fitzgerald played a good-sized role last weekend in helping the Huskies make the UMD series relevant in the battle for home ice. The junior forward from Hinsdale, Ill., broke out from an 11-game stretch where he was limited to two assists. Fitzgerald had two goals, an assist and was a plus-3 in a 5-1 win over Denver on Feb. 28 playing on a line with junior center Will Hammer and senior left wing Jake Wahlin.
"I thought Fitzy played good on Saturday, too," Huskies coach Brett Larson said. "Hopefully, that's him finding his game and getting back to where he's wanted to be and where we expected him to be.
"I think playing with two older guys (on that line), they understand their roles and they all play hard. I told those guys during the week that they should be one of the hardest lines to play against in college hockey. If they are, they're going to get chances because of that."
Surprise recruiting call
Hammer and Fitzgerald both played junior hockey in the North American Hockey League and were recruited walk-ons for the Huskies. His last season of juniors, Fitzgerald tied for eighth in the NAHL in points (59 in 60 games) and helped the Wings reach the Robertson Cup semifinals.
It was about midseason when Fitzgerald got a call from former St. Cloud State assistant coach Garrett Raboin. Two seasons before that, Fitzgerald had been playing Tier III junior hockey. To hear from the Huskies, who had made the previous four NCAA tournaments, was ... a little hard to believe.
"I was talking to some smaller schools and I think it was a Saturday morning that Rabs called and I thought it was a prank call," said Fitzgerald, who works in the athletic ticket office as part of a work-study program. "Seriously, I thought somebody was messing with me."
So when Fitzgerald got the offer to walk on, he jumped at the chance and remains grateful for the opportunity. Larson said that Fitzgerald always comes to the arena with a smile on his face. Fitzgerald said that it is not a manufactured look.
"It's easy to be in a good mood playing when you're playing here because we have 26 guys on our team and, in all honesty, there isn't one guy I don't like," he said. "We're such a family and I have such a blast coming here. I say this a lot, but I'm just really thankful to be playing here."
Then Fitzgerald went on to name each member of the Huskies hockey staff and the high quality person each one is. Needless to say, when recruits make campus visits, they get to spend time with Fitzgerald.
"He's a breath of fresh air in the locker room, always has a smile on his face and you certainly want any recruit to talk to him because he just loves the game and the program so much," Larson said. "He's one of those culture guys who helps the locker room remain on the right pH level."
In science, a pH level is the amount of acid in the water. When that level bubbles up, Fitzgerald seems to be an antacid.
"On and off the ice, I think I just bring energy," he said. "I love having fun in the locker room and on the ice. When we're playing well as a team, we're loose. We come into the locker room and we're not super serious.
"We're very focused, but we're loose. We feel like the calmer we are, the better we play."
And while he has spent most of his three seasons on the third and fourth lines for the Huskies, he also has been productive. He had 14 assists and 19 points in 38 games as a freshman and 10 goals and 18 points in 26 games last season. Last season was shortened due to an upper body injury suffered from a legal check he received from UMD defenseman Nick Wolff on Jan. 11, 2019, in Duluth.
But when he is healthy and playing well, Fitzgerald provides some important elements to the Huskies.
"He's got the ability to make plays all over the rink," Larson said of Fitzgerald, who plays both wing and center and is a plus-21 in 93 career games. "He's a good 200-foot player that can play at both ends and he competes hard."
An accounting major, Fitzgerald was recently named to the NCHC Academic All-Conference Team for the third time. He has accepted an accounting internship for this summer in the Twin Cities.
Hrenak receives monthly honor
St. Cloud State's David Hrenak has been named NCHC Goaltender of the Month for February. Hrenak, a junior from Považská Bystrica, Slovakia, and Los Angeles Kings draft pick, was 4-1-2 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in seven starts in February. For the season, Hrenak is 12-9-6 with a 2.67 GAA and .908.
Hrenak was an All-NCHC Second Team pick last season and is 49-21-10 with a 2.33 GAA and .910 save percentage in 86 career games.
Minnesota Duluth junior defenseman Scott Perunovich was named NCHC Player of the Month and North Dakota forward Shane Pinto was named NCHC Rookie of the Month.