Two Minnesota Wilderness players made life-changing decisions Wednesday when they signed national letters of intent to play hockey at the NCAA Division I level.

Darian Romanko, a forward from Shoreview, Minn., signed to play for the Minnesota Gophers, and Ivan Chukarov, a defenseman from Des Plaines, Ill., will play for the Massachusetts Minutemen next season.

Romanko led the Wilderness and finished second in the North American Hockey League with 31 goals this season. His 61 points were good for eighth in the league and he recorded 102 points in two seasons for the Cloquet-based team.

“I think he’s learned a lot,” said Wilderness coach Corey Millen, a former NHL player. “He adapted pretty quickly and he shoots the puck very well. He plays a pretty complete hockey game … and I think that’s one of the things Minnesota liked about him.”

Romanko said his time with the Wilderness taught him to look for the easiest, most available play instead of a SportsCenter highlight play. He also credited Millen with teaching him to understand his role within the team.

Millen says Romanko learned that there’s more to the game than just scoring goals and that increased knowledge helped him use his size to his advantage. At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Romanko is one of just a few Wilderness players with a size advantage in the NAHL.

“I’m a little more defensive,” Romanko said. “I like to take care of defense first and translate that to offense.”

Over the summer Romanko plans to work on improving his puck-handling skills and overall speed.

“I’d like to see him get a half step or a step quicker,” Millen said. “(Minnesota) needs guys that play like him, that play hard on the puck and play gritty hockey.”

Romanko, who plans to pursue a degree in finance or business, is excited about “just being a Gopher. It’s been a lifelong dream.”

Chukarov was the fourth-highest scoring defenseman in the NAHL this season with 43 points for the Wilderness, who trail Coulee Region 2-0 in their best-of-five, first-round playoff series.

“It’s been my dream ever since I was a little kid to go out east,” Chukarov said of the Amherst-based Hockey East college. “In my mind it’s a great opportunity for me to play and get a lot of ice time out there and maybe make a difference coming in as a freshman.”

Chukarov says the main reason for his development in two years with the Wilderness is that Millen and the coaching staff helped guide him and taught him how to play the game the right way. The coaches not only helped Chukarov improve his puck handling, but also with his decision-making on the ice. Now, he says, he makes the right decisions faster than when he started junior hockey.

“He has all the skill in the world,” Millen said. “He’s going to have to embrace how to defend and be harder on pucks, and if he does that he can be very successful.”

-- Wednesday marked the first day of the weeklong national spring signing period. One of the Northland athletes to announce their intentions was Superior senior Kaitlin Heinen, who will attend Division II St. Cloud State this fall on a swim scholarship.