When Billy Exell made the move from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Cloquet to play junior hockey for the Minnesota Wilderness in 2013, he thought his time in the Northland would last two, three years max.
Five-plus years and two national titles later, the 23-year-old Exell is nearly halfway through his sixth and final season in the Northland as a senior assistant captain for fourth-ranked Minnesota Duluth, which travels to play Western Michigan at 6:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Exell, who had made many trips to the area growing up playing for the Thunder Bay Kings, in his second season in Cloquet helped lead the Wilderness to the franchise's first North American Hockey League Robertson Cup championship in 2014-15.
That title run in part opened the door for Exell to come to the Bulldogs - where his uncle, UMD Athletic Hall of Famer Tom Milani, played from 1972-76. Last year, as a junior with UMD, he helped the program win its second NCAA championship at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
"I didn't really know how long I'd be playing on the Wilderness because I could have played for three years," Exell said about his move to the Northland in 2013. "I was just kinda going with the flow almost. Then to get the opportunity to come to Duluth, it was an easy choice for me just because I was moving down the street basically and staying in the same area, which I've been in almost my whole life."
Both the 2014-15 Wilderness and 2017-18 Bulldogs were underdogs in their respective playoff runs.
The '14-15 Wilderness finished second in their division and played most of the postseason on the road, including all of the league semifinals and final. That team also fell behind 2-0 at home in its opening best-of-five first-round series, but won 10 straight afterward - including a 2-1 four-overtime victory in Game 1 of the championship series at Austin - to claim the league's postseason title.
Two losses at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff nearly knocked the Bulldogs out of the postseason last year, but UMD snuck into the NCAA tournament by .0001 of a percentage point and from there won four one-goal games to become champions.
And the similarities between the squads don't end there, Exell said.
"The team mindset was huge in both of those and that's something that I've kind of thought about," Exell said this week on the News Tribune's Bulldog Insider podcast while reflecting on the two championship squads. "I felt like everyone was playing for each other. Everyone was buying in and really committed to wanting to go all the way and win."
Over the past two-plus seasons at UMD, Exell has been a fourth-line right wing, appearing in 96 out of 100 games. Points have been hard to come by at times - Exell has nine goals and nine assists over the past two-plus seasons, including just one this year - but his energy and quickness have brought a new dynamic to that line.
Exell's speed is especially tough for opponents - no matter what line they play on - to match up against.
"Honestly, I don't really think anyone can contend with his speed," said sophomore Kobe Roth, Exell's linemate the last two seasons, who added Exell's speed is on par with defenseman Scott Perunovich. "When he gets those pucks wide and takes it around those (defensemen), it's hard to beat. I just try and keep up with him and try and find an area with him."
Exell missed four games in late November and early December 2017 due to injury. As a freshman, he only played in a sporadic six games. He got in two before Christmas over a month apart. He didn't play in back-to-back games until late February that season.
Exell said his experience as a freshman helped him relate to younger teammates who are going through a similar experience. Like the 2015-16 Bulldogs squad that Exell joined as a late recruit, this season's lineup is fairly well established.
Exell said the key to cracking those types of lineups, either this year or next, is to put in the work during practice. Coach Scott Sandelin said he continues to see Exell put in that same level of work consistently, even though his spot on the line chart is solidified.
"He's kind of that unsung hero, but an important part of our team. He's probably our best-conditioned guy," Sandelin said. "He plays the game with a lot of energy. He's gained a lot more confidence each and every year with and without the puck. He's been a real important part of our team."
NO. 4 UMD (10-3-1) AT WESTERN MICHIGAN (8-6-0)
- What: NCHC series When: 6:05 p.m. Friday/Saturday
- Where: Lawson Arena
- TV: My9
- Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9
- Internet: nchc.tv (video)
- Twitter: @mattwellens