Off to the AHL

One interesting story line to follow this season will be progress of the 17 WCHA players who turned pro early this offseason. I believe it is the largest number of underclassmen from one conference ever to leave school early in a summer.

With the NHL regular season looming in one week, I find it interesting that just four of those 17 still have a shot at being on an opening day NHL roster — UND’s Travis Zajac, Denver’s Matt Carle and Paul Stastny and Minnesota’s Phil Kessel. The rest will start the year in the AHL or Europe.

Today, Drew Stafford and Matt Smaby were among the latest to get assigned to a minor league affiliate. More demotions are still to come, too.

Everyone is wondering whether the early defections are a sign of what is to come in college hockey. It’s possible. But when you see the parade of those players to the minor leagues, it may make elite college players think twice.

Of course, nobody can determine if a player made the right decision to jump until the season is over. Last season, Matt Greene spent the first half of the season in the AHL, and he was a regular on a Stanley Cup Finals team by the end. He obviously made the right choice.

As for the record-breaking 17, we’ll see at the end of the year. Just how many of them make it to the NHL could have a major effect on how many underclassmen leave college hockey next summer.

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Fabian working toward return

Forward Erik Fabian said he’s inching closer toward being ready to go just a few months after having surgery to repair torn ligaments in his knee.

Fabian, one of three seniors on the team, was cleared to skate in late August and started taking hits a couple of weeks ago.

His availability for Sunday’s exhibition against the University of Manitoba (5 p.m.) isn’t certain, yet. Fabian said he feels fine, but now he’s working on being game-prepared.

"I wouldn’t say (my knee) feels like it did before the injury," the big winger said. "But I don’t feel it out there. I don’t feel it turning, I don’t get those twinges. Reading game speed is the hardest thing for me. I’ve been on the ice for about four weeks now. When I first got out there, everything was so fast. Trying to read something was like trying to read French. I can’t do it. I just need to get back to being in right places when I need to be there."

In the NHL: While several former UND stars battle to make an NHL roster, Greg Johnson’s career appears to be in doubt. Johnson, UND’s all-time leading scorer, has not been cleared to play for the Detroit Red Wings because of an abnormal reading on his Electrocardiogram, according to Detroit media reports. The season opens Wednesday.

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Media day comments

UND men’s hockey media day was Wednesday afternoon at Ralph Engelstad Arena, and coach Dave Hakstol briefly addressed those in attendance. The three main issues Hakstol discussed were the favorites in the conference, the team’s schedule and the upcoming challenges. He also said Scott Koberinski will remain as the volunteer assistant coach for the second straight season.

Hakstol:

*On who is the favorite in the WCHA: "Last year, I was pretty confident talking about Wisconsin as a good, veteran team that should be able to get out of the gate quickly. That’s what ended up happening. This year, it seems more wide open. We’ll have to wait and see who steps up. I think it’s going to be a real interesting battle from day one."

*On the schedule: "I think we have a great schedule. Our nonconference schedule is very challenging and it should put us in good position nationally (as far as schedule strength is concerned). We open with Quinnipiac — a very good hockey program. Their coach, Rand Pecknold, has really built that program up to a level where they are able to compete nationally. They have a lot of good, young players. After that, we hit the ground running. We go to Wisconsin, then come home for hockey Hall of Fame weekend against Maine. That series should get some national attention. Coming out of the gate is going to be real critical for this team.

*On the challenges this team faces: "It’s a new season, and there are new challenges. We’re starting at the base of the mountain and we have to climb back up it. I think we have good people, and we have good to great character. Our character is extremely strong. We’re still a young team. If you look up the ages from last year, we’re probably younger than we were a year ago. We have 18 freshmen and sophomores. But with our youthfulness comes experience. We have a bunch of guys who have been to two Frozen Fours. Even more guys have been to one. We have guys who have won a Broadmoor Trophy and a MacNaughton Cup. Hopefully, we can apply those experiences to this year."

USCHO preseason poll released

The first college hockey poll was released Monday by U.S. College Hockey Online, and the defending champion Wisconsin Badgers/runner-up Boston College Eagles are pegged as the teams to beat this season.

There are six WCHA teams ranked in the top 20:
1. (tie) Wisconsin
3. Minnesota
6. UND
9. Denver
15. Colorado College
16. St. Cloud State

The Sioux grabbed one first-place vote.

As always, there are a few votes that make you scratch your head. The what-are-you-thinking awards this poll go to whoever voted Colgate the No. 1 team in the nation and whoever ranked Alaska-Anchorage in the top 20.

Fast start for Kristo

Danny Kristo was the first UND recruit to hit the ice this season, and the 16-year-old didn’t disappoint.

Playing for the U.S. National Under-17 Team, Kristo scored a goal and added an assist to lead his team to a 5-4 overtime shootout win against Traverse City on Friday night. Kristo scored his team’s fourth goal and set up Minnesota recruit Jordan Schroeder for a first-period goal.

Kristo was named the first star of the game. He is scheduled to come to UND in 2009. We’ll surely hear lots about him in the next three years.

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Ironman Porter

In what has become a fall tradition the last three years, Chris Porter won UND’s Ironman competition again.

UND coaches have to be pleased Porter once again showed up to camp in very good condition. He will need to be a key part of the team’s offense this season.

A freshman, Hunter Bishop, took second, which is pretty impressive. People in the Vernon Vipers organization (Bishop’s previous team) said that he was an incredibly hard worker and will do whatever it takes to reach his ultimate goal (make the NHL). I’m guessing that work ethic is a major reason UND decided to bring him in this fall, even though he didn’t have a monster year in the BCHL.

Zach Jones seems to be following in family footsteps by being in extremely good physical condition and UND coach Dave Hakstol said there’s no surprise in Philippe Lamoureux being near the top of the list.

First skate

This afternoon, the Sioux had their first "skill session," one of their two hours per week when the entire team can skate together. They will do this for two weeks until regular practice begins on Sept. 30.

It appears the rookies will be wearing these numbers:

5 – Chay Genoway
11 — Darcy Zajac
18 — Michael Forney
19 — Hunter Bishop
29 — Chris VandeVelde

…and Alaska Anchorage transfer Shea Hamilton, who will have to sit out this year, was wearing 15. It looks like Genoway and Zajac are staying clear of their big bro’s numbers, which seems to make sense, especially given the fact that both are far different players than Colby and Travis.

Same old story

UND notched a hat trick Sunday.

For the third straight year, the student season-ticket process turned into a disaster.

If you want to read about the mess, go here. If you want to find out what’s next, go here.

There has been an ongoing battle with the students since the new Engelstad Arena opened in 2001. Battles have involved tickets, standing and swearing.

My idea to solve the issues:

1. Get rid of the student season tickets all together. At the old arena, there were no season tickets. I also didn’t hear any complaints from students about it. The Monday of every weekend series, you went to Wilkerson, Chester Fritz or the Union to buy a ticket for Friday, Saturday or both nights.

2. Make seating first come, first serve. That’s how it used to be and should be again. Students who whine because they can’t come at game time and get a front row seat… get real. If you’re going to wait two hours to get a seat, you should be on the boards. That’s the way it works all over the country. There’s nothing wrong with any seat in the arena, anyway. I sit higher up than anyone and don’t have a problem with it.

3. Move the student section to the end of the arena. I’m thinking Sections 104 and 105 in the lower bowl and 302A, 303, 306 and 306A in the upper bowl. Maybe the little parts at the top of 103 and 106, too (there is a stairway splitting it in half at the top). Season ticket holders move to the middle of the arena. This move means…

4. Allow students to stand during games again. I don’t know of another college student section in the country – of any sport — in which students don’t stand. With students in the middle of the arena, they are not allowed to because they block the view of season-ticket holders who try to look around them (and don’t want to stand all game). If you put the students on the end, nobody is trying to look around them. For the suite holders, rope off the top two rows of the lower bowl, so their view isn’t blocked.

So let them stand up and make noise, the way it’s supposed to be. And speaking of atmosphere… how about having the students right on top of the opposing goaltender while the Sioux are trying to rally in the third period? That should give the atmosphere enough of a boost where the students can agree to…

5. Tone down the foul language. You’ll understand in 10 years (dad.. mom.. what does it mean when they are saying…?). I didn’t hear any cussing at the West Regional and the atmosphere was better than ever.

Sure, there are compromises to be made with these changes from all sides — season ticket holders (ones who don’t want to move from behind the net), REA (if they are trying to guarantee profit by selling season tickets or threaten misbehaving students by being able to revoke season passes) and students (who may lose a few lower bowl seats and will have to get tickets several times a season). But they don’t seem to be major ones.

This way, students would be able to sit (stand, I mean) by their friends — including ones met during the semester – at every game, instead of having assigned seats for the entire season. The atmosphere should improve, and the season ticket and suite holders should be able to enjoy the games.

REA won’t be able to threaten to revoke season tickets from students, but the threat of them standing will no longer be an issue.

Does this proposal make sense to you, the stakeholders? Or does anyone have any better ideas? I’d like to hear them, so we don’t have to go through this again next year.

Back to the ice

Hockey has arrived.

The NHL preseason began on Sunday and it was highlighted by the Phoenix Coyotes going back to Winnipeg to play a game against Edmonton Oilers. Although chants of "Go Jets Go" broke out, the local fans were pulling for Edmonton – not their former franchise.

Another highlight of the first night came in the New Jersey-Boston game, where players with local connections shined. Former UND All-American Zach Parise, former Minnesota Gopher Barry Tallackson (of Detroit Lakes) and former Cloquet High star Jamie Langenbrunner all scored for the Devils in a 5-0 rout.

Ed Belfour had a rocky start to his Florida Panthers debut, giving up three goals in 30 minutes of work.

Reloaded

The WCHA lost more underclassmen (17) than any other college hockey conference, by far. According to Inside College Hockey, the WCHA has reloaded better than any conference, too.

Of the top seven recruiting classes in the country — as rated by the Web site – six are WCHA schools, including UND, which checked in at No. 6. Boston University (No. 2) was the only non-WCHA school able to crack the top seven.

Darcy Zajac and Chay Genoway are the two names brought up in the rankings as players to keep an eye on. INCH seemed to avoid discussing players they had ranked as a top forward, defenseman or goaltender. But one forgotten player is former Moorhead High standout Chris VandeVelde. The fourth-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers had a strong second half of the season in the USHL last year and should play a key role on this year’s Sioux team.

Recruit watch: Sioux Falls Stampede forward Brad Malone will choose between Wisconsin and UND in the near future. Malone is the cousin of former St. Cloud State standout and current Pittsburgh Penguin, Ryan Malone.

Around the WCHA: Wisconsin senior defenseman Jeff Likins won’t miss any games as a result of his arrest for underage drinking and disorderly conduct, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Likins was arrested after reportedly falling into and destroying a family’s tent at a music festival in June.