Captains come through again: Kuhlman, Mackay's leadership key to NCAA title run

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Duluth captains Karson Kuhlman and Parker Mackay have made a number of big plays this season. They've both scored important goals, made key assists and laid some big, big hits at critical moments in games. But nothing tops t...

Parker Mackay (39)and Karson Kuhlman (20) of Minnesota Duluth celebrate after the national championship game Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Minnesota Duluth defeated Notre Dame 2-1 to win its second national championship. Clint Austin /

ST. PAUL - Minnesota Duluth captains Karson Kuhlman and Parker Mackay have made a number of big plays this season.

They've both scored important goals, made key assists and laid some big, big hits at critical moments in games.

But nothing tops the effort Kuhlman and Mackay put forth off the ice this year for a UMD program that in the offseason brought in 10 freshmen to replace the seven seniors it graduated and three others it lost to the NHL.

The fruits of their labor resulted in a 2-1 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday night in the NCAA championship game at Xcel Energy Center.

Kuhlman, who was named the most outstanding player in the Frozen Four, scored the first goal midway through the first period and he did it on the fourth line, substituting for an injured Kobe Roth.


"I said if I could have 25 guys like him, it would make my job easy," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said at the postgame news conference. "He's smart, plays the game right and is disciplined. This year has been fun because our relationship as captain and coach grew. I can't say enough about Karson, and I was excited to see he was named most outstanding player because he deserved it."

Sandelin had equally high praise for Kuhlman before the game.

"We've been very fortunate to have some really good captains and leaders on our team for a lot of years," Sandelin said. "But this was a little bit more challenging, I think, for them, for the coaching staff, how everything's going to come together, when it's going to come together, how to handle some of those situations."

Karson Kuhlman celebrates after scoring the first goal of the game on Saturday night. (Clint Austin / DNT)

Kuhlman and Mackay are the latest in what has been a special group of captains, specifically over the last four years at UMD.

What has been so great about each of those groups is they build upon what the leaders before them did. They kept pushing and pushing this program further and further each season until last year's team reached the national title game.

Then this season the reins were handed to Kuhlman, Mackay and for a brief period Adam Johnson, before the Hibbing native decided to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were left with a whole new challenge in the summer and fall, one that continued right up until the final horn Saturday night at Xcel.


On the ice, Kuhlman and Mackay not only had to be leaders, but teachers, as well, for a team that played with a new starting goaltender, a new group of centermen and five freshmen defensemen.

Off the ice, they had to be that caring, loving, much older brother to a class of teenagers who were stepping into a man's world - one that minus the paycheck operates at a professional level. They had to show these kids the ropes on the road and back home in the classroom.

They had to be that encouraging voice when times were tough.

"We were both in a situation we had never been in," said Kuhlman, who tied a program record by playing in his 166th consecutive game. "Teams in the past always had a core group of older guys. We lost that group last year. It's been a learning process for us, as well, learning how to push guys' buttons, how to challenge guys, how to get responses out of certain guys. Just couldn't be more proud of how the younger guys are playing, how everyone is playing."

This was, indeed, a rewarding season for the Bulldogs.

But was it frustrating at times trying to lead a team after playing for three consecutive senior-laden groups? Yes, Kuhlman said.

Was their patience tested during a tough first half in which the Bulldogs fell below .500 and to the basement of the NCHC? Yes, admitted Mackay.

"You have to learn and you have to adjust," Mackay said. "You find these guys whether they are down or up, you got to try and keep them on an even keel because they are a little younger. They've bought in completely and it's been unbelievable to see their progress throughout the year."


Much of the Bulldogs' leadership, including the coaches, went through similar stages in the first half, but many of the freshmen said those frustrations were never taken out on them.

Kuhlman, Mackay and the rest of the upperclassmen were always there to answer their questions, build up their self-esteem and help them grow.

"They were there to pick us up and tell us to keep going, keep playing your game," freshman defenseman Matt Anderson said.

"Their patience with us, and not getting too worked up, was huge for us to help us build confidence and learn at the same time," freshman defenseman Mikey Anderson said.

Now that group is national champions, and the Bulldogs' two captains are a big reason why.

"This year Karson and Parker have just done an unbelievable job of leading this group through the ups and downs and keeping those young kids going, keeping them from getting frustrated and helping them through the tough times," UMD assistant coach Brett Larson said. "I think a lot of credit has to go to Karson and Parker.

"Those two have grown into fantastic leaders."

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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