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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Commie's take on early departures

The number of players leaving college early look like they are spiking this offseason. UND has lost four already -- the most in more than a decade. Minnesota has lost three. Denver, Mankato and Wisconsin also have lost underclassmen, making it a hot topic around the WCHA.

When I talked to Mike Commodore a couple of weeks ago, I got his take on it. He still follows college hockey and UND closely, even though he's busy with his season. He easily rapped off every player that had signed and even knew Rastislav Spirko was engaged to a Slovakian girl.

Commodore left UND after his junior season (1999-2000) to sign with New Jersey. Looking back at his move, Commodore said he would have liked to stay.

"I'll be honest, I wanted to stay for my senior year. I loved being at UND and I wanted to stay there. But it basically came down to money for me. The way it was set up back then, if I stayed, I would have had no leverage in negotiating my contract the next year. I know it sounds greedy, but I left for purely financial reasons. Winning the national title (in 2000) helped, too. I really wanted to win a national title.

"It was one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make. I wanted to stay, my heart said stay. But my head said I've got to go. New Jersey didn't put a lot of pressure on me and neither did (then-coach) Dean Blais. I just had to make my decision by a certain day.

"I know it's tough for the university to have guys leaving after their second and third years, and I don't know how you correct that. But when guys are getting signing bonuses close to a million dollars, it's tough to turn down. Mine wasn't half of that but...

"If you are offered a great deal, it's tough to turn down. If you could be guaranteed that same contract a year later, then I think guys would stay... but you aren't."

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Combine, firings and a lost recruit

I apologize for the delay in updating.

In the meantime, there have been a few WCHA notes to pass along.

**The NHL has invited 115 prospects to the 2006 NHL Draft Combine, to be held in Toronto from May 30 to June 3.

Sioux forward Jonathan Toews and recruits Michael Forney (Thief River Falls) and Derrick LaPoint (Eau Claire, Wis.) are among the invitees. Also invited is Warroad High School forward Aaron Marvin.

**Alaska Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak dismissed two of his assistants earlier this month. The assistant coaches, both former players, expressed their dismay in how the situation was handled to the Anchorage Daily News. According to the article, UAA has an odd policy that new coaches must maintain old assistants from the previous regime for at least a year. Shyiak took over for John Hill, who left to be an assistant at Minnesota.

**Wisconsin has been stockpiling top-end recruits for several seasons down the road. It appears the Badgers might lose their best one for 2007, though. Several news agencies have reported that Sam Gagner will sign with London of the Ontario Hockey League instead of going to Wisconsin. Gagner, the son of former Minnesota North Star Dave Gagner, is projected to be a first round pick in the 2007 NHL draft. It was considered a steal for the Badgers to nab Gagner from the OHL in the first place.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Robe update

I just found out that Don Cherry will be wearing the robe and red wig tonight (Friday) on Coaches' Corner. The fashion was made popular by former UND defenseman Mike Commodore, who has a red afro and wears a robe around the Carolina Hurricanes locker room before games.

Check it out on CBC. It should be quite a sight.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The NHL's Frozen Four

Former UND defensemen Matt Greene and Mike Commodore will compete in the NHL conference finals beginning this weekend. Greene, a rookie defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers, has been seeing more ice time as the playoffs have progressed.

Commodore, a Carolina Hurricanes fan favorite, was featured on an NHL.com chat today. One fan asked Commodore: "Do you have any interests outside hockey? If you weren't a hockey player, you'd be a ...?"

Commodore responded: "I like baseball and I enjoy golf. I read a lot of books. If I had to pick a school subject, I'd pick math. If I wasn't a hockey player, I'd like to be a lifelong college student at the University of North Dakota. I had a great time there."

For those of you living in Grand Forks, Canada or if you have access to CBC, you'll have to check out Coaches' Corner with Don Cherry on Saturday. The borderline out-of-control host made a bet before the Carolina-New Jersey series that if the Hurricanes won, he would wear a Mike Commodore robe on the set, instead of one of his brilliant suits.

Carolina's first game since winning that series is Saturday at 1 p.m. against Buffalo, so I would assume that is when he will don the robe. Commodore has popularized the robe in Carolina, as he wears it around the locker room before games.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Chat with Chay Genoway

Chay Genoway, the former Shattuck-St. Mary's player and younger brother of former Sioux standout Colby Genoway, will be added into the defensive mix this fall. The 5-foot-9, 170 pounder from Swan River, Man., recently completed a season in the British Columbia Hockey League. The offensive-minded defenseman scored 17 goals and added 32 assists in 56 games for the Vernon Vipers. Sioux coach Dave Hakstol calls Genoway "a fiery competitor, who will add a lot to the team."

How did your first season in the BCHL go?
It went real good. I came back to defense, and as the year went along, I became more and more comfortable. By the end of the year, I was out there every other shift.

You have played both forward and defense in your career. How much and when did you play each position?
I played forward both years at Shattuck, and I played forward the year before I went there. I played defense my whole life before that.

Which position do you feel better suits you?
Definitely defense. I made the transition back there this season and I felt comfortable. I really understand the game from back there -- the play is in front of me. I also think I can create more back there. I'm fairly offensively minded, I guess, but come playoff time I matched up with other teams' top lines and sacrificed a lot of the offensive stuff.

Because of your experience at both forward and defense, it has led many people to think that you might play both positions at UND, like Lee Marvin has for the past four seasons.
I'm shooting to play defense, but whatever the coaches ask me to do, I will do it.

The stereotype of UND defensemen is that they are real big, real strong and real physical. You don't fit into that mold.
Every team needs different types of players. I think with the rules changes in the game, it makes more room for smaller defensemen like myself. But I don't want to be seen as just an offensive defenseman. I want to do it all. You have to do it all.

UND has sent a number of defensemen to the pros in recent seasons, and the coaches have done a good job developing blue liners. Did this factor into your decision in choosing UND?
Absolutely. Brad Berry works with the defensemen and he knows a lot about the defensive part of the game. I'm excited to learn from him.

What are your expectations for next season?
I know the jump is going to be a big challenge. I'm excited to play with a bunch of good players and I know that every week in practice it is going to be a battle just to play on the weekend.

You've played against two future teammates, Darcy Zajac and Evan Trupp, in the BCHL this season. What can you tell me about those players?
I hear a lot of people say that Darcy is a grinder. And yeah, he does play with a bit of an edge, but he'll put up some good numbers. He centered (Salmon Arm's) top line all year and he put up big numbers. He's not afraid to stick his nose in, either. Trupp is a heckuva hockey player. He's not gifted with great size, but you can never catch him and he sees the ice so well.

Grand Forks won't be a strange place for you, as you roomed with Jonathan Toews and Ryan Duncan at Shattuck, and you saw games at Engelstad Arena when your brother played.
I was around there a lot. I've watched enough games in that rink to where I understand the history and what it's all about. I'm excited to get there and hang around The Ralph.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Hall of Fame closed

The board of directors announced today that the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn., will be closed.

This comes as disappointing news to me, as my family comes from the area and I know what a great hockey community it is.

There are a number of places in America that make the claim as "Hockeytown." Eveleth is as worthy of that title as any town in the country. It's hockey history is incredible. The town of fewer than 4,000 has produced many greats, including:
  • John Mayasich, a guy many people consider to be the best American-born hockey player ever. Mayasich turned down many offers to play in the NHL, and he won an Olympic gold medal in 1960. If you look through the Minnesota state high school hockey program (which featured Eveleth on the cover this year by the way), you will find Mayasich's name plastered all over the record book.
  • John Mariucci, the man who the University of Minnesota's hockey arena is named after. He was an All-America selection at Minnesota, and an NHLer. He also coached the Gophers, starting the tradition of recruiting Minnesotans. He's credited with helping high school hockey grow in Minnesota, too.
  • John Matchefts, a Hall of Famer and Olympic silver medal winner in 1956.
  • Doug Palazzari, a player, coach and administrator. He served as the USA Hockey executive director and is a Hall of Famer.
  • Oscar Almquist, the longtime Roseau High School coach and Hall of Famer.
  • Serge Gambucci, a hockey legend in Grand Forks. Gambucci, also a Hall of Famer, actually is an Eveleth native.
  • Mark Pavelich, the man who assisted on the most famous goal in U.S. hockey history.

The people in the town love hockey and are proud of its history. The Hall of Fame was a source of pride for the area, which also boasts the world's largest hockey stick.

But the truth is that the area is too small to efficiently support such a venue. The nearest "city" is Hibbing, which isn't even half the size of Grand Forks. Besides Lake Vermillion, the area doesn't get many tourists, either. It hardly has traffic going through it. And everyone living in the area has been to the Hall of Fame many times, which leaves the shrine empty.

There was talk of moving the Hall of Fame a few years ago. It now is a reality.

The next question is where will they move it? Word around Eveleth a few years back was that they were looking at moving it out east. I hope this does not happen.

The names of most inductees mean nothing to people out there. How many Philadelphians can tell you who Henry Boucha is? Are the Christians and Brotens going to draw in crowds in Boston?

Minneapolis, Duluth or even Grand Forks seem like more sensible options. If the New Horizons Decade group makes way in building a National Collegiate Hockey Hall of Fame in Grand Forks, would it be feasible for them to make an attempt at Eveleth's Hall of Fame, too?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chat with Jake Marto

Former Grand Forks Central standout Jake Marto just completed his first season in the United States Hockey League. Marto, a former Mr. Hockey winner, is planning to go back to Omaha this fall for one more season. Then, he will play at UND. Marto, a 6-0, 170-pound defenseman, scored one goal and added 21 assists in 54 games for the Lancers this season.

How did you feel your season went?
It really went well. It was a good experience to play at that level. I knew it was a great league to play in.

What was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
Speed and strength. Everybody seemed to be strong on the puck. I couldn't just push people off like in high school.

You were kind of a free-roamer in high school, jumping into the play and carrying the puck deep in the offensive zone consistently. Did you have to cut back on that in the USHL?
A little bit. Omaha develops really good defensemen offensively. You can rush the play and stuff. We're always working on stuff like that in practice. I still jump into the play, but I cut down a little from high school.

Were you still able to use your speed and skating as a weapon?
Definitely. Down there, the speed of the game is a lot higher. Not being the biggest guy, I had to elevate my level.

The second-leading scorer on your team was a defenseman, Nick Schaus.
He's usually my D-partner. He's a good player. He's been there for four years and will play at UMass-Lowell next season. It was a good learning experience to play with him.

Have you gotten bigger?
Yeah, a little bit. I came to Omaha at 160. Now, I'm at about 170. This summer will be big for me. I'll be doing a lot of lifting. During the season, I lifted two or three times a week -- just stuff that keeps you strong -- not the heavy lifting I'll be doing this summer.

What things do you want to work on next season?
I'll be working on my D-zone coverage, getting stronger in the D-zone. In high school, it wasn't as hard to defend people. (In the USHL), you really have to stay with your guy.

Were you able to follow UND's season at all?
Not really. You don't get much down here. It's basically UNO (University of Nebraska-Omaha), and that's it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Holy fanbase

Do UND fans hate the Gophers more than they like the Sioux?

After upsetting Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Holy Cross auctioned off 16 game-worn jerseys (the Holy Cross seniors kept theirs) from the West Regional for $200 a piece. Quickly, Sioux fans snatched up all 16 of them. The jerseys will be signed and the money will go to a Worcester, Mass., charity at the direction of Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl.

At the same time, the UND athletic department has posted an auction of game-worn Sioux road jerseys for the same price, $200 a piece. There are still 10 Sioux jerseys that haven't been bid on yet.

I know the logical explanation is that Sioux fans are taking the opportunity to own part of history, as the Holy Cross upset was the first time a No. 4 seed beat a No. 1 seed. But still, it is something to think about.

Also, more than 6,500 people have downloaded a 10-minute audio highlight clip of the Holy Cross-Minnesota game, put together by Holy Cross' student radio station, WCHC. The clip was featured on radio stations in at least six states, and the call of the overtime game winner was featured on ESPN Radio's Dan Patrick Show as the "Homer Call of the Week."

People at the radio station credited UND fans for helping to popularize the clip.

On another note...

In the NHL playoffs, former UND standouts Zach Parise and Mike Commodore hooked up for a go-ahead goal with 20 seconds left in regulation Monday night. Commodore, a Carolina defenseman, accidentally deflected the shot of New Jersey forward Parise into his own net. Incredibly, however, Commodore's Hurricanes tied the game with three seconds left and won it in overtime to take a 2-0 series lead.

Want to make a quick buck?

Try this trivia question on your friends:

Which NHLer, who played college hockey in North Dakota, has scored the most points during this season's NHL playoffs? (For the answer, click comments.)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Effects of the defects

How will the Sioux survive the early departures of Drew Stafford, Travis Zajac and Matt Smaby?

All three players were outstanding, well-rounded talents, which is why they now are pros. They produced offense and were also very good in areas that didn't show up on the scoresheet. They will leave holes in the offense, defense, power play and penalty kill.

Can UND effectively fill those voids?

The talent will still be there. Everyone marveled at the fact that UND had five first-round draft picks and 11 total picks on its team last season.

Even with the losses, the Sioux still could have five first rounders come the fall. T.J. Oshie, Brian Lee and Joe Finley all will return and Jonathan Toews is a lock to go in the first. Recruit Michael Forney also could go in the top round this summer.

In all, there will probably be 12 draft picks on the UND roster, one more than the team that preceeded it.

Plus, forwards Rastislav Spirko and Ryan Duncan both tallied more than 30 points this season. Neither are on that list of draft picks because of their size.

Who will step up?

Without Stafford and Zajac manning the top lines, the Sioux will look for other players to step up and fill those important roles.

"Two players who come to mind right away are Andrew Kozek and Matt Watkins," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "Those are two guys who are going to have great opportunities to play expanded roles. They are guys who are very capable of playing much larger roles."

Kozek and Watkins didn't play on UND's top two lines during their freshman seasons, as they were asked to play other roles. Now, it may be time for more of a scoring role.

Kozek, who scored seven goals and added six assists, was a dominant scorer in the British Columbia Hockey League. He finished second in the league in scoring prior to coming to UND.

One BCHL coach told me that in the league's playoffs, his team focused a gameplan around slowing down Kozek, but they were unable to control him. I would expect that he will be a strong candidate to fill one of the openings on the power play. Kozek did get some time on the unit this season, although not much.

Of course, there will still be loads of offensive talent to join him on the power play, including 30-point scorers Oshie, Toews, Duncan and Spirko (if he returns). Lee, Taylor Chorney and Kyle Radke also give the Sioux threats from the blue line.

On the penalty kill, the Sioux will be without mainstays Stafford, Zajac, Smaby and outgoing senior Mike Prpich.

I would expect to see Spirko, Chris Porter and Erik Fabian to be key forwards on the penalty kill, and Zach Jones and Chorney on the blue line. All five of those players had expanded penalty killing roles last season. Watkins seems like a strong possibility to kill penalties, too, with his speed and tenacity.

So, how are the players taking the early losses? Hakstol said they have begun to prepare for next season and he senses a lot of excitement for it.

"We fully turned our focus toward next year," Hakstol said. "We're looking forward to having a great summer. And I know, to a man, everyone is excited to get back here in the fall."

Stafford becomes a Sabre

I don’t think anybody was too surprised to see Drew Stafford sign a pro deal Wednesday. Stafford put together good season and developed a strong all-around game.

He led one of the most explosive teams in the country in scoring. He showed a quick, accurate wrist shot. He developed a great one-timer. He was a key component of the power play. He was one of the team’s best penalty killers.

He could score, pass, work in the corners and throw his body around.

There’s no way Buffalo could let him go unsigned and risk losing him next summer, when he would have become a free agent. Stafford is a versatile player who the Sabres can use however they want -- as a scorer or as a checker. He’s proven he can play both roles effectively.

When I talked to Stafford on Wednesday morning, he sounded beat. That’s to be expected, though, when a 20-year-old is named to Team USA’s World Championship squad, rearranges finals and finishes classes, flys to Buffalo to work on a contract, flys to Latvia to participate in the tournament, plays an exhibition game (in which he scored a goal) and signs a pro deal -- all in a week.

The knock Stafford heard throughout his career was that he wasn’t consistent. This season, he did a good job quieting his critics. Stafford finished in the top 10 nationally in goals. He played a key role in getting the Sioux to the Frozen Four by scoring 15 points in his last 10 games of the season.

Stafford played through a knee injury in the West Regional and even scored a shorthanded goal to break Michigan’s back in the first round game.

His play late in the season earned praise from coach Dave Hakstol, who called Stafford a leader in a lot of ways.

Teammate Ryan Duncan echoed that sentiment. Upon winning the WCHA Final Five, Duncan explained to the media how Stafford and Erik Fabian spent time in the locker room before each game to help the team get ready -- even though both players were out with injuries. “Drew and Erik have been great leaders for us,” Duncan said.

I always was amazed at how little attention Stafford received for the rare talent he possesses. He became UND’s fourth-highest drafted player ever in 2004, but he wasn’t talked about nearly as much as Zach Parise or Brady Murray. Maybe Sioux fans were starting to get accustomed to all the high-end players UND was bringing in.

But if everyone knew in 2003 that the 17-year-old youngster from Shattuck-St. Mary’s would leave UND after three years just five career points behind Lee Goren and Bryan Lundbohm, would Stafford have generated a few more conversations?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Trupp to have surgery

UND recruit Evan Trupp will have surgery on his shoulder, which he dislocated during the British Columbia Hockey League championship series. The date of the surgery will be determined later this week.

"We're trying to get it done quickly," Trupp said. "The doctors said the rehab will take two to three months."

The 5-foot-9, 151 pound forward suffered the injury after getting tripped by a defenseman's stick in Game 2 against Burnaby. In his words: "I came into the zone and I was cutting across, and the D-man stuck his stick out. I tripped over it and my shoulder popped out."

He came back and played with the dislocated shoulder in Game 6 of the series, even though his coach said he probably shouldn't have. Trupp's Penticton team lost the series 4-2.

Trupp said he hasn't decided if he will play one more season with Penticton, or if he will come to UND in the fall. The injury will not affect his decision, though.

About Trupp

When I talk to BCHL people, they all are quick to bring up Trupp's outstanding vision.

"He can think two plays ahead of anyone else on the ice," Penticton coach Bruno Campese said. "He's very skilled."

He was named Interior Conference rookie of the year and he led the BCHL in rookie scoring (29G, 50A -- 79P).

Dave Hakstol and the coaching staff seems to have, once again, recruited a proven winner in Trupp. He won state titles at Service High School in Anchorage, Alaska, as a freshman and a sophomore. As a junior, he won a state title with South High School. So, losing in the BCHL championship series was something new for Trupp. Still, he said he's happy he decided to play Junior A hockey instead of a fourth year in high school.

"There was a change, for sure," he said. "It was more physical and the pace was faster. I thought I played well, though, just making that step from high school to Junior A."