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College men's hockey: Despite another championship run being canceled, Bulldogs seniors leave program with great memories

Wolff, Shepard, Miller and Hilderman share their best on- and off-ice memories, plus give thanks to those outside Amsoil Arena who helped make their four years at UMD special.

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Minnesota Duluth players, including Nick Wolff (5) and goaltender Hunter Shepard (bottom right), celebrate after defeating Massachusetts 3-0 in the 2019 NCAA championship at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

The Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey program has graduated a number of historic senior classes the past few seasons.

The Class of 2017-18 was the first to play in the NCAA tournament in all four seasons. The Class of 2018-19 graduated with back-to-back national championships.

The Class of 2019-20 looked to cap their college careers by taking the Bulldogs to a fourth-straight Frozen Four, a fourth-straight national championship game and a historic three-peat as NCAA champions.

Then a pandemic happened, just as UMD was set to roll into the postseason having won nine of their last 10 games.

“There’s a reason there’s a lot of good players back on our team. That was to chase history,” said Bulldogs senior center Jade Miller. “We felt like we had the team to do it. I’m sure there were a lot of teams that felt they had a chance to go on a deep run this year. It’s tough for all teams, but especially for us going for that three-peat.

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“You can’t even make that stuff up. Going into college, you just want to win one or get a chance to play for one, let alone go for three in a row. It’s definitely tough for sure.”

No, the Bulldogs' senior class didn’t get to add to their already stockpiled trophy case in 2019-20 because of COVID-19. But Nick Wolff, Hunter Shepard, Jarod Hilderman and Miller were still able to make some great memories in their final season as Bulldogs.

And all four will skate away with a college degree, either in the spring or shortly after.

Prior to the cancellation of the 2019-20 postseason by the NCHC and NCAA late last week, the News Tribune caught up with the Bulldogs' four 2019-20 seniors. Wolff, Miller and Hilderman recorded an episode of the Bulldog Insider Podcast on Tuesday afternoon and Shepard met with the local media the next day.

They shared their favorite on- and off-ice memories, and gave thanks to those outside Amsoil Arena who helped make their four years at UMD special.

Favorite on-ice moment

Shepard never made it to the Minnesota state tournament during his time at Grand Rapids High School. He never won a youth hockey title nor a title in juniors with the Bismarck Bobcats in the North American Hockey League.

So for Shepard, it will always be tough to top that first title he won on Saturday, April 7, 2018, at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

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“The first national championship, it's one of those things where it's just so stuck in your mind,” Shepard said. “It's like it happened yesterday and I think it'll be like that the rest of my life.

“That's what I wanted to do when I came here. That was the goal. It's what I wanted to do as a little kid. Obviously, everyone’s goal is to play in the NHL, but just from where I grew up and my idol growing up was Adam Hauser. He was the goalie for the Gophers when they won the national championship at the ‘X.’ It was just really surreal. Everything in my hockey career led up to that point, to that moment. It doesn’t feel real. It feels like a dream. It’s just really special.”

Miller agreed the 2-1 win over Notre Dame will forever be tough to top and two moments stood out to him from that night. The first was when senior captain Karson Kuhlman scored 9:06 into the game to give UMD a 1-0 lead. Miller was on the red line, Kuhlman on the goal line and they locked eyes after the goal.

“Our eyes were as big as baseballs,” Miller said. “We were like, ‘Holy Cow.’”

The moment that gave Miller chills, though, was before the puck even dropped.

Minnesota Duluth's Nick McCormack holds the championship trophy after the Bulldogs edged Notre Dame 2-1 on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)
Minnesota Duluth's Riley Tufte (left), Peter Krieger (25), Jade Miller (26) and Dylan Samberg celebrate as time expires during the national championship game Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Bulldogs defeated Notre Dame 2-1 to win their second national championship. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“Leading up to the national anthem in St. Paul before our game vs. Notre Dame when we had 20,000 people chanting ‘Let’s go Bulldogs,’ I remember how deafening it was,” Miller said. “I think I did a full 360 and they didn’t even start the national anthem because it was going for so long. I was looking around at guys going, ‘There’s no way we’re not going to win this game.’ ”

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Wolff’s favorite on-ice moment came at Xcel a year later when UMD beat St. Cloud State 3-2 in double overtime for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship. Senior wing Billy Exell tied the game shorthanded with under five minutes to play and then sophomore Nick Swaney scored the game-winner. Then-freshman Tanner Laderoute set up both goals.

“When Tanner passed it to Billy Exell on the penalty kill and then Swaney buried in OT, that was one of my favorite moments,” Wolff said. “That’s what led to the second (national championship). I just remember Garnsy (equipment manager Chris Garner) jumping up and down. He was the most thrilled out of anybody.”

Miller said it wasn’t until after winning the second national championship in Buffalo, N.Y., that he appreciated that win, when his parents brought it up after the 3-0 win over Massachusetts.

“I’m so glad we beat St. Cloud,” Miller said, relaying what his parents said. “Now, no one can say St. Cloud was the better team all year long.”

Hilderman said winning the first Frozen Faceoff title at Target Center his freshman year was special, but there are other moments he’s cherished with his teammates. One of those came on their final road trip during the closing minutes of a rout at Colorado College on Feb. 29.

It’s a moment that reminded him how fun the game of hockey can be.

“In CC a couple weeks ago, we were beating them like 6-1,” Hilderman said. “We got a power play with like 45 seconds left. We threw the fourth line out there with me and Wolffy on the point. I haven’t scored since my sophomore year. It was on my one-timer side and Wolffy just wanted to give me a one-timer. The puck heads directly to him and he catches the puck (with his hand), looks up at me and falls over at the blue line. The puck got dumped out. It was hilarious.

“I literally started bursting out laughing when I was on the ice. I could barely skate back and get the puck after they dumped it out.”

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University of Minnesota Duluth players Jade Miller (from left) and Hunter Shepard, with coaches Scott Sandelin and Brett Larson laugh while watching a video during a welcome home celebration at Amsoil Arena in Duluth in 2019 after the program won its second national championship. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Favorite off-ice moment

For the Bulldogs’ seniors, their favorite moments off the ice are time spent with “the boys” away from the rink.

Hilderman said going out to Spurs with the parents after senior weekend was a blast.

“It’s not every day you can go out in college and have a couple drinks with your parents at the bar after a game,” Hilderman said.

Wolff shared the time he had the team all come up to his uncle’s house on a lake just north of Duluth.

Meanwhile, for Shepard, his favorite off-ice moment is similar in a way to his favorite on-ice moments. It’s all about winning.
Just don’t tell the coach.

“Our intramural softball teams — don’t tell Sandy, but — we’ve been pretty good the last couple years,” Shepard said. “We got a couple intramural softball championships under our belt, as well.”

Miller’s favorite time was a fish fry this season in which freshman defenseman Hunter Lellig did the cooking and Wolff provided the beverages.

“We’ve had a couple fish fries where Matty Anderson and Dylan Samberg and maybe Shep, a little bit, catch a lot of walleye and crappies or whatever,” Miller said. “They did it their freshman year and we didn’t do it again until this year. On our off weekend we had all the guys over to one of the houses and had a fish fry. It was awesome. We threw an NHL game on. It was fun having all the guys together, cooking up some food.”

Jarod Hilderman 2018 file
Jarod Hilderman of Minnesota Duluth raises his hands in celebration at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul during Frozen Four practice sessions in 2018. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Making an impact

Of the Bulldogs' four seniors, two — Miller and Hilderman — will graduate with degrees this spring while Shepard and Wolff are just a class or two away from completing their degrees.

And they all had plenty of people to thank for helping them along the way.

Miller and Woff both highlighted Steve Castleberry for making an impact. Castleberry is a professor of marketing and business ethics and UMD’s faculty athletic representative.

“He just helps on and off the ice with everything,” Wolff said. “He’s such a personable guy. I really appreciate all he’s done for me.”

Added Miller: “I finally had him as a teacher last semester and he was very helpful. I met with him a bunch of times, even off the record stuff in his office, whether its help with other classes or just to meet up and chat and recap a week or weekend. He’s been very helpful to our hockey team and program.”

The athletic department’s Laura Schnell received similar praise.

“Can’t say enough about the help Laura has given us throughout the years,” Hilderman said. “I hear regular students talk about how they have to set up their schedules and I’m just like, ‘I don’t have to do that.’ I take my computer to Laura and she goes, ‘How about this class?’ And I say, ‘Sounds good, add it for me.’”

Added Wolff: “She’s awesome.”

Both Hilderman and Shepard said they built bonds with a number of their professors.

For Shepard, that teacher was John Kratz in UMD’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics.

“He lives on a lake north of Duluth and has let us go fishing out there quite a bit,” Shepard said. “He’s a nice guy, probably one of the teachers I’ve been closer to in my years here at UMD. It’s been nice to have so many good teachers and professors at the school. They make all the students’ lives easy going. Personally, academically, it’s been a treat going to school here.”

For Hilderman, that person was associate professor of journalism Jennifer Moore. In addition to her teaching, he enjoys her Twitter (@jem2998).

“She tweets more than me,” said Hilderman, who is @J_rodHildy. “She’s a really good teacher, very relatable. … I’ve had a couple sit down meetings with her, gone to her office hours a couple times. I missed some class and needed some guidance, a little help. She’s always been really helpful.”

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The Minnesota Duluth student section reacts after Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Scott Perunovich (7) scored in the third period against North Dakota Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, at Amsoil Arena. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

One more 'thank you'

Talking to the News Tribune on Friday after the season was officially declared over, Miller said the abrupt end to the season and his college career didn’t feel real because he and his classmates have always been playing hockey at this point in the calendar year.

“We’re used to another month of our season left and taking care of classes and getting into a rhythm,” Miller said. “It feels like there’s no closure.”

Part of that lack of closure comes from not getting to play that final game at Amsoil Arena. Traditionally, after that last home playoff game, a Bulldogs’ senior captain takes the microphone and thanks the fans for their support. UMD didn’t get to do that this season, as no one thought the March 7 win over St. Cloud State would be it for 2019-20.

So Miller did so on Friday.

“Thanks to the fans who have supported us week in and week out and traveled all along and supported us every road trip we were on, whether it was in conference or a nonconference road series, the regionals and Frozen Four,” Miller said. “Wish we could have given them something to cheer for again this year. It’s definitely tough but the support we got along the way was unbelievable. I can’t thank the fans enough.”

As did Shepard, a co-captain this season with Wolff, on his drive north. Thanks to the fans, very few — if any — boxes went unchecked the last four years, Shepard said.

“Everything that you could have asked to happen in your college hockey career, we’ve done that and gotten everything we asked for and a huge part of that is the fans and support of the community,” he said. “We were treated so well around town.”

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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