I may still be new to life in North Dakota, but in the short time I’ve resided in Grand Forks, I’ve learned the following:
- People here are fiercely proud of their local eating establishments. I know that’s the case in most places, but up here, The Red Pepper and Darcy’s Café are tantamount to hallowed ground, and for good reason. (Not to overstate this, but Darcy’s is everything you could want in a comfort food restaurant and doubles as a reminder that the world is still a good place.)
- Anything – I repeat, anything – can be utilized as a parade float. Backhoe? Yes. Giant wind turbine propeller? Absolutely. Unmarked Ford Taurus? Perfect. As long as you’re throwing out candy and can drive it/drag it down/tow it down DeMers Avenue, it’s fair game. (To be honest, I knew this already. The Frontier Days Parade I grew up attending in White River, South Dakota – population 595 – wasn’t exactly the Parade of Roses, but the city block-long wind turbine propeller featured in this year’s Potato Bowl Parade was a parading feat that deserves mention.)
- Finally, the four seasons I used to know (winter, spring, fall, etc.) have been replaced by just two. With all due respect to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, the first is Construction Season, which carries on yearly without fail from May to September. But even though the long, warm days of what I used to call summer are welcome here in the north, it’s the season that stretches from October to mid-April that’s the most anticipated and the one that brings new life to this part of the country. I’m talking about Hockey Season, and it’s firmly on our doorstep.
Before we get too far into this, I realize there’s been plenty of speculation about my experience (or lack thereof) in the hockey world. It’s true that this will be my first season covering the sport on a daily basis, but the game’s been a part of my life for a long time, and it’s a sport I’ve always been passionate about.
I grew up watching the NHL in the mid-90s, attaching myself to the great/hated-depending-on-who-you-ask Colorado Avalanche teams of Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg. My memories of their annual postseason battles with rivals Detroit, their Cup-winning run in ’96 over Florida – complete with plastic rats – and the long-awaited first title for Ray Bourque in 2001 are a big part of my personal sports history.
Hockey wasn’t a team sport in my high school – shocking that White River High School (pop. 595, if you skimmed that part) didn’t offer it, right? – but after several disastrous/embarrassing attempts, I learned how to skate in college and played the game every night that my friends and I could on the outdoor rinks of Sioux Falls. We loved it so much that we partnered with our campus activities department to create a Winter Olympics competition for the sole purpose of getting to play on a real ice surface indoors, a feat that I remember fondly as one of my greatest personal accomplishments.
(Just so we’re clear, I’m completely serious about how much pride I take in being a founding member of the University of Sioux Falls Winter Olympiad, which will celebrate its 10th Games this February. Kind of a big deal, friends.)
A few years later, I got to experience hockey up close during my time as the public address announcer for the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede. My ice-level position between penalty boxes gave me the best seat in the house to watch the next generation of future stars come and go over my four years there.
But even in my time watching, playing and working in hockey, I’ve never experienced the fever for the sport like I have here in Grand Forks.
It’s a tangible feeling walking around this town, both from an optics standpoint – UND hockey jerseys are standard issue here – and from the underlying current of excitement you catch in passing conversation or that you experience at North Dakota Hockey Fan Fest or at media day for the men’s and women’s teams.
That passion for the game is impossible to ignore, and it’s only been further multiplied after Brad Berry’s boys earned their eighth national title last April.
The journey North Dakota men’s hockey and their fans embarked on in 2015-16 was captivating and ultimately fulfilling, a long-by-UND’s-standards title drought of 16 years ended with a clutch 4-2 semifinal win over Denver and an emphatic 5-1 championship hammering of Quinnipiac.
While more than a handful of key pieces from that team have moved on – namely, four graduated seniors and five underclassmen now signed to NHL contracts – the cupboard’s anything but bare, and there’s a sense of optimism that last year’s title run might be the first in a series of championship seasons ahead.
This coming Saturday, the banner earned in Tampa on that memorable night five months ago will be raised high in the Ralph Engelstad Arena rafters. It’s sure to be a significant moment – one to take in and savor for a long time – but along with representing the accomplishments of last year’s team, it also sets the bar for what this year’s group will hope to achieve.
UND’s journey to raise title No. 9 began moments after No. 8 was captured – this is not a team or a coaching staff known to rest on success. But in terms of actual game play, that quest starts this Saturday with North Dakota’s annual exhibition tune-up against Manitoba before their first regular season home series against Canisius the following weekend. Subsequent home dates against RPI (October 15) and Bemidji State (October 21-22) allow for six opportunities to see UND in action at home in October alone, with each game featured live on Midco Sports Network®.
Speaking of, MidcoSN® is proud to be your television home for UND hockey for a fifth season running, with 18 live men’s games and four live women’s game on our schedule as well as weekly original programming focused on both teams on Tuesday nights from 6 pm to 7 pm with UND Sports Extra and North Dakota Hockey with Brad Berry.
It’s an understatement to say that I’m excited to be a part of our network’s outstanding coverage of the best hockey programs in America, and like you, I’m eagerly awaiting October and what’s sure to be the start of another year to remember.
Time to change the calendar, officially, to Hockey Season.