Minnesota Duluth boasted 13 NCAA champions on its roster in 2020-21, including six players with two national championships rings.
But it was missing something the two previous championship teams both had in 2017-18 and 2018-19. That something wasn’t a skill, a trait or even a someone. It was a feeling, specifically that taste of a crushing postseason defeat.
“Losing obviously sucks, but you can learn a lot from that,” said Bulldogs senior wing Koby Bender, a two-time national champion and three-time Frozen Four participant. “That just drives you going toward the next year. We’re going to have a good summer this year and we’re going to be coming back ready to go.”
When Jade Miller, Nick Wolff, Jarod Hilderman and Hunter Shepard graduated after the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, the Bulldogs lost the final four players left from the 2016-17 UMD squad that lost to Denver 3-2 in the 2017 NCAA title game in Chicago.
That team — which featured eight future NHLers and likely still counting — beat North Dakota in dramatic fashion at Target Center for the program’s first NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship and then topped both Ohio State and Boston University 3-2 in overtime to reach the Frozen Four.
Future Los Angeles Kings star Alex Iafallo scored with 26.6 seconds left in regulation to get the Bulldogs past Harvard 2-1 and into the national championship game, where Jarid Lukosevicius registered a second-period hat trick that UMD could not overcome.
The very next season, 16 from the 2016-17 Bulldogs went on to win a national championship in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the year after that, nine became two-time national champions in Buffalo, New York.
Throughout the 2020-21 postseason, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin repeated the phrase, “experience doesn’t guarantee anything,” every time the resume of his roster was brought up. But he does believe that experience helped Massachusetts — which lost to UMD in the NCAA title game in 2019 — beat the Bulldogs and St. Cloud State at the 2021 NCAA Frozen Four in Pittsburgh for the program’s first national championship.
“Unfortunately, we didn't accomplish what those other guys did in previous years as far as winning it, but that's OK. That's OK,” Sandelin said of being unable to three-peat as national champs. “That just tells you how difficult it is. They can take a lot from it — better than hearing me spout off about it. It's good for those kids to experience it and be a part of it.
“If we don't learn from it, then that's our fault. Everybody wants to win, right? Everybody wants to win, but I think sometimes you have to lose, too. Maybe it keeps everyone from getting a little too complacent. You keep the hunger, you keep the fire, you keep that drive instead of everyone just expecting it's going to happen. You still got to earn things no matter where you go to, and it's no different than the regular season. You got to earn everything you get when you play every game in college hockey. Hopefully they learn a lot from it.”
As of now, Sandelin is set to return 21 of the 25 players from the 2020-21 Bulldogs who lost in the Frozen Four, after three — Cole Koepke, Jackson Cates and Nick Swaney — signed NHL contracts. Senior graduate transfer Matt Cairns out of Cornell is also not returning to UMD.
Among the returnees is Noah Cates, who decided not to join his older brother, Jackson, in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers this spring. Set to become the first two-time captain since current assistant Adam Krause in 2013-14 and 2014-15, Noah Cates will be among the 10 Bulldogs to have felt the joy of winning it all at the Frozen Four and the sting of being sent home early.
Then there are the Bulldogs’ back-to-back champions. Five — Kobe Roth, Koby Bender, Matt Anderson, Louie Roehl and redshirt senior Ben Patt — will be returning for a fifth season in 2021-22. After losing to UMass in Pittsburgh, no one appreciates and understands what it takes to get to the top and stay at the top more than that group, Anderson said.
“Sandy always told our class, ‘All you guys know is winning, all you guys know is winning,’ and not that that's a bad thing, because obviously we like to win,” Anderson said. “Yeah, (losing to UMass) definitely gives us a little more of a push, a little drive for next year just knowing you don't win every time.
“Our class wants to win in our last year and go out with a bang.”
A return to normalcy
In addition to getting another crack at a national championship, what Anderson and his teammates are looking forward to the most in 2021-22 is returning to some semblance of normalcy after over a year dealing with COVID-19 pandemic protocols.
“Obviously it probably won’t be 100% normal, but as normal as we can get nowadays,” Anderson said.
In his final press conference of the 2020-21 season, Sandelin said he was looking forward to leaving video calls and nasal swabs behind after this year — “I’m sick of Zoom. I’m sick of testing.” — but he’s also looking forward to a normal schedule, specifically come the end of the season.
After playing nine games in the NCHC Pod in Omaha, Nebraska, during the opening 19 days of the season — including five games in eight days at one point — the Bulldogs finished 2020-21 playing seven games over the final 50 days, culminating with the loss to UMass on April 8.
The last time UMD played games on back-to-back days in 2020-21 was prior to the final 50 days, Feb. 12-13 at Western Michigan. After that, the Bulldogs closed the regular season with three games spread out over three weeks (Feb. 18, 27 and March 6).
The postseason saw even bigger layoffs, even though it began with UMD playing two games in three days at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff on March 13 and 15 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. After losing to SCSU in the conference semifinals, a 10-day layoff was extended to 11 days after Michigan had to withdraw from the NCAA regional in Fargo, North Dakota, due to positive COVID-19 test results in the program. UMD, of course, made up that lost ice time the next night in a 3-2 five-overtime victory on March 27 over host North Dakota to reach the Frozen Four.
Sandelin said the randomness of the schedule was not an excuse for missing out on another national championship. It was something every team faced throughout the season due to COVID-19.
But it was a very different feeling compared to previous seasons, when UMD would play back-to-back games every weekend from mid-February through the end of March, until the sport takes a week off after the regionals and a day off in between the Frozen Four semifinals and final.
“Normally you’re in that grind at the end of the year every weekend,” said Sandelin, whose team in 2019 played 14 games from mid-February into April, including eight postseason games over the final five weeks en route to NCHC and NCAA titles. “The end of this year was so spread out that it was just hard to get into a real rhythm with our team, but yet they still found a way to win a big game. We probably played our best game of the year against North Dakota to have a chance to get back (to the Frozen Four) and repeat. In that sense, it was very rewarding.”
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While Sandelin now knows who is coming back to the Bulldogs in 2021-22, he’s still finalizing what players to bring in to fill the few open roster slots he does have.
Sandelin said both Casey Gilling, a fifth-year senior center transferring in from Miami, and Kyler Kleven, a 20-year-old center for the Waterloo Blackhawks of the United States Hockey League, are for sure coming in to bolster the team’s depth up the middle in the fall to allow Noah Cates to return to his natural position of wing after playing center in 2020-21.
Owen Gallatin, an 18-year-old defenseman for the USHL’s Fargo Force out of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, is also likely to be joining UMD in the fall of 2021, Sandelin said.
Despite signing National Letters of Intent in the fall like Kleven and Gallatin, Sandelin said it’s possible 18-year-old forwards Jack Smith (a 2020 fourth-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens playing for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL) and Carter Loney (playing for the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers) could defer their enrollment and return to juniors with everyone the Bulldogs have coming back.
“We’re trying to create a balance,” Sandelin said. “When you can get some of those guys back and it works in your program, they’re pretty good. They’re not like freshmen.”