Minnesota Duluth senior defenseman Willie Corrin had a confession this week.
Growing up in International Falls as the nephew of North Dakota coach Dean Blais, he was a “big” fan of the Fighting Sioux.
“I was a Sioux fan, unfortunately,” Corrin admitted before leaving to Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks for an NCHC series against the newly minted Fighting Hawks. “But they are no longer even a team, so it doesn’t matter.”
As unfortunate as his fandom of the university formerly known as the Fighting Sioux may be, Corrin’s appreciation of his uncle’s former team - Blais now coaches at Nebraska-Omaha - is what set the stage for an incredible act of kindness and future friendship.
A year ago, Corrin received a Facebook message about his biggest fan. It came from Kari Matthes, a Hermantown High School and UMD graduate. Matthes and her husband, Joe, a Duluth East and UMD grad, have two children - 2½-year-old Sophia and 5-year-old Leif.
All four are Bulldogs fans, but Leif’s fandom may put the rest of the family’s passion to shame. He loves the Bulldogs, specifically, the team’s red-haired defenseman wearing No. 5, Corrin.
“A year ago, my father actually passed away and when that kind of stuff happens, you end up spending a lot of time with family,” Kari said. “Everybody’s favorite topic to talk with Leif was the Bulldogs and a couple weeks before that we established Willie Corrin was his favorite.
“We had season tickets three rows behind the penalty box. He would sit there and just scream really funny things like ‘Good pass Willie Corrin!’ It was just hilarious. People in front of us and people to the right would turn back to look to see what kid was yelling really simple things about Willie Corrin. He would just scream it.”
Why Corrin, who has three career goals and 21 career assists? No one knows, not even Leif. It’s a mystery.
Kari said she realized Leif’s obsession with Corrin was serious when Leif’s uncle got him to eat a meal he normally wouldn’t touch by telling him it was Corrin’s favorite meal, even though they had no clue it was. Leif devoured every bite.
“I don’t know why he is, but I love him and I’ll miss him when he graduates and he will be gone, and my favorite will be Riley Tufte,” said Leif, referencing the Mr. Minnesota Hockey finalist and potential first-round pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft who will join UMD as a freshman next fall.
The kid knows his Bulldogs hockey. He’s also an Andy Welinski fan.
“We have a dog named Riley,” Leif added after telling the impressed reporter about the Blaine Bengals senior forward.
Corrin said he still remembers being Leif’s age and idolizing North Dakota hockey players. Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, who played for the Sioux and coached under Blais when Corrin was young, also remembers his senior defenseman at that age.
Based on Sandelin’s description, a young Corrin and 5-year-old Leif are very much alike.
“He was a feisty little kid when he was that young,” Sandelin said. “I always joke with him I wish he still had that in him like he did when he was 2 or 3.”
Corrin said talking to a North Dakota player at that age was an awesome experience. That’s why when Kari reached out, Corrin said he knew it’d be special if he and Leif could meet. The Bulldogs defenseman proposed he and Leif play hockey together, so they set up a play date at the Matthes’ house after the conclusion of the 2014-15 season.
Leif even had his mom send Corrin a picture of their house so he didn’t miss it.
“It’s great to see little kids being Bulldog fans,” Corrin said. “If they’re my fan and I’m their favorite player, I’m going to do what I can to reach out and have fun with the kids as much as I can.
“I went over there, he had two nets set up and we played one-on-one and his little sister was the ref,” Corrin said. “She kept saying ‘goal.’ He beat me 5-4. It was in their kitchen, like normal floor hockey. You play wherever you can get a long hallway and the ball doesn’t scoot away from you too much. He was just really excited. Every time he scored he’d say, ‘Willie Corrin scores!’ I’d say, ‘How are you scoring if I’m in this net?’ It was fun.”
Leif can confirm the score. He did indeed beat Willie Corrin.
“I liked when he played with me and I won,” Leif said. “It was 5-4.”
In addition to playing hockey with Leif, Corrin also brought over a signed stick and gloves. Kari said Leif went to bed that night with Corrin’s gloves. The signed stick now hangs above Leif’s bed.
“He even said to Leif, ‘Hey dude, smell these. They smell like hockey, don’t they?’ ” Kari recalled about the gloves. “He was so great. He was so amazing. … He was really going hard. At the end he had to sit down and catch his breath.
“I’m so glad it was (Corrin). He is just so genuinely nice. It’s amazing. It happened when Leif needed it the most. He was going through a lot of issues losing his grandfather. I didn’t share any of that stuff with Willie.”
Willie and Leif still keep in touch. Corrin recently flipped a puck over the glass to Leif prior to a game against Colorado College at Amsoil Arena after spotting a sign Leif made for No. 5. Leif spent the rest of the pregame celebrating and holding the puck high above his head.
“It says ‘Go No. 5 Willie Corrin,’ ” Leif said of the sign, which also earned him a spot on the Amsoil video board and a Zamboni ride with his stuffed animal, Coconut.
Corrin’s mom, Jean, happened to spot Leif and his sign on the video board. It was an exciting moment for her, too, as exciting as the day she became better known as Willie Corrin’s mom as opposed to Dean Blais’ sister.
“You hear a lot about, ‘It’s your uncle Dean,’ ” Willie Corrin said of growing up. “It’s funny because my mom says she always heard, ‘You’re Dean Blais’ sister, you’re Dean Blais’ sister.’ It was great the day someone came up to her and said, ‘You’re Willie Corrin’s mom,’ instead of ‘You’re Dean Blais’ sister.’ ”