PORTLAND, Maine — Yes, it’s back.
Game day is here, and you don’t even have to wait until night time. The puck drops on the season at 3:30 p.m. Central time today as UND takes on Lake Superior State in the opener of the Ice Breaker Invitational at Cross Arena.
I’ll drop some photos here since that’s the only way you will get a visual.
Yeah, that’s right, there’s no television or webcast of the Ice Breaker, I’m told. But we’ll have the live chat fired up right here and Tim Hennessy is here to call the games on the radio.
UND held an hour-long practice at the rink today and finished with the customary Thursday shootout. The shooters had their way for a while with Tucker Poolman outlasting Luke Johnson for the win.
Others scoring on their first shootout attempt: Chris Wilkie, Christian Wolanin, Rhett Gardner, Austin Poganski, Keaton Thompson, Troy Stecher, Drake Caggiula and assistant coach Matt Shaw, who had the players buzzing when he buried his attempt.
Gardner and Shaw were eliminated in Round 2. Everyone but Poolman and Johnson were eliminated in Round 3.
At the end of practice, as the players left the ice, there was a 75-year old, gray-haired man standing by the boards, opening the door for the players as they walked off the ice. The players blissfully continued to the locker room, completely unaware that their doorman was the second-winningest college hockey coach of all time.
Yes, Ron Mason was hanging out, lending a helping hand.
Mason’s grandson, Travis, is a senior defenseman for the Spartans. Travis’s father is the late Shawn Walsh, who coached the Black Bears for nearly 20 years. So tonight’s game should be a special one for their family.
Another interesting note is that Lake Superior State second-year coach Damon Whitten is a Michigan State alum and will play against his alma mater on Saturday. Whitten played in the first-ever Ice Breaker as a Spartan.
Today marks the first game as a head coach for Brad Berry. I tried to capture a little bit of what he’s like behind the scenes and explain kind of how he got from Bashaw, Alberta, to Grand Forks — and how he got back here after being in the NHL.
The overriding theme when you ask anyone about Berry is that the first thing everyone says is: “He’s just such a nice guy.”
I wasn’t able to fully capture all of the stories that I was told, so here are a few more:
Although Berry has a bad back (two surgeries on it), one day he saw that his elderly neighbors had sod delivered. The neighbors’ son-in-law told me that Brad went over there and spent the rest of the afternoon helping them lay it down.
Another person told me that a former UND student manager passed away recently and he saw Brad at the funeral. When he asked Brad if he knew the student manager, Bob Bustin, the coach said he knew a little bit about him and wanted to pay respects to Bob and his family and acknowledge the support and love that Bob had given to UND hockey.
“To me, that was Brad Berry in a nutshell,” the observer told me. “Doing the right thing, out of the spotlight, behind the scenes, supporting others.”
Soon after the story was posted online Thursday night, I received an email from a former WCHA opponent of Berry’s, who said he has a story of their old playing days and an incident where Berry showed him quite a bit of grace when most players in that era would not.
Of course, there are funny stories, too.
Perry Berezan, who played juniors with Berry, made a college visit to UND with Berry, committed to UND on the same day, played a couple years in college with Berry and lived with him in an apartment in Grand Forks after college, had lots to say.
“He sweats all the time,” Berezan said. “He could sweat in 20-below temps with his shirt off.”
Berezan also told his favorite Berry story.
The team finished warmups, went into the locker room and started coming back on the ice before introductions. They were all pumped up, ready to go and came flying out of the tunnel. After skating one circle in the zone, Berry lost an edge and went down.
Of course, with the fresh ice, he started flying across the ice and bowling balled right into the cheerleaders. He took out a handful of them, and one broke her wrist. That was the last time they were on the ice that season.
“He felt so bad about that,” Berezan said. “If there was video of that back then, it would be on YouTube right now with five million views.”
Dave Hakstol said that Berry has a very entertaining personality and that he’s “king of the one-liners.”
Berry also is a sharp hockey guy who has already won some big battles as UND head coach.
No. 1 — He was able to keep Dane Jackson as an assistant. Jackson has been a huge part of UND’s success recently. Jackson could have gone to the Flyers with Hakstol but opted to stay.
No. 2 — He was able to get an impressive assistant to fill the void. Matt Shaw, by all accounts, has made big impressions already. It’s essentially an NHL coaching staff considering all three have either coached in NHL or been offered jobs there.
No. 3 — He landed the top available recruit in forward Tyson Jost out of Penticton. Jost is off to a huge start there this season.
Now, it’s time for the games.
UND swept Lake Superior State last season in Ralph Engelstad Arena, but both teams have had major turnover. Whitten said he did review the game video of last year’s series and pointed out the good and the bad to his team.
Cam Johnson will start in net today, making his second-career start. His first start was also against the Lakers, strangely enough. It didn’t go well, but maybe this road setting is what he needs. The environment will be more like what he saw in juniors.
The Lakers will have a familiar face at top-line center in Minot’s Bryce Schmitt. He’s a senior at LSSU. He’s the top returning scorer for the Lakers this season. Another guy to watch is junior forward Alex Globke. He was gaining interest as a free agent after a big freshman season, but he had a quiet sophomore campaign. Can the big winger charge back onto the NHL scene this year?
Let’s get going with tonight’s picks….
Providence at Miami: This is where their NCAA game should have been played with Miami being the No. 1 seed. Can we get a game as entertaining as the one last year, where Miami pulled the goalie with nearly 10 minutes left and almost came back from a four-goal deficit? Probably not. Miami win and tie.
Omaha at MSU-Mankato: The Maverick rivalry is back. These are two offensively gifted teams with questions in net. Could be one fantastic series for the fans. Split.
Bemidji State vs. Minnesota Duluth: This is a Highway 2 home-and-home. The Bulldogs are the top-rated team in my poll and I’m sticking with that until it gets proven otherwise. Bulldogs sweep.
Arizona State at Alaska Anchorage: The first D-I game for the Sun Devils. Anchorage is coming off of a 12th-place finish in the WCHA, but ASU hasn’t faced D-I competition yet. Seawolves 4, Sun Devils 1.
UND vs. Lake Superior State: The Lakers will be improved from last season, and UND has plenty of question marks all over the lineup, but the talent looks like it’s there. UND 5, Lake Superior State 3.