The NCAA men’s hockey championship game Saturday in Pittsburgh could be a quasi-Hermantown High School reunion if Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State-Mankato have their way in the Frozen Four.
Four Hermantown graduates — Cole Koepke, Jesse Jacques, Blake Biondi and Darian Gotz — play for UMD, while Ryan Sandelin and Wyatt Aamodt skate for the Mavericks.
The teams play in opposite Frozen Four semifinals Thursday at PPG Paints Arena and, with victories, would match up in the title game. The Mavericks take on St. Cloud State at 4 p.m., followed by the Bulldogs and Massachusetts at 8 p.m.
“This year having six of us among the Frozen Four teams is pretty special,” UMD junior forward Cole Koepke said. “We all played together in high school so we’re texting each other and having fun with it.
“We’ll message each other and make little side bets. We’re hoping they win their first game and they are rooting for us, hoping we can meet each other in the finals.”
From the days of Jon Francisco to 2011 Frozen Four hero Kyle Schmidt and now the current crop of Hawks, UMD has developed an enviable pipeline to Duluth’s biggest suburb.
The UMD coaches not only mine that pipeline but contribute to it. Head coach Scott Sandelin and former associate head coach Jason Herter had sons in Hermantown’s program and current associate head coach Derek Plante has three sons involved. In addition, Bulldogs assistant coach and ex-player Adam Krause, though now a Lakeside resident, was a Hawks standout.
“Just the fact that all six of us made it this far — especially with how crazy this season has been — is super special,” said Mavericks sophomore forward Ryan Sandelin, whose father is in his 21st season at UMD. “Once you’re done playing with those guys in high school, everyone goes their separate ways. … Any time you can see them have success — unless you’re playing against them — you’re rooting for them. They are like family to me, and I’m so glad they’ve moved on from high school and had the success they’ve had.”
That success began in youth leagues, creating a culture of winning.
“That’s the word for it: culture,” said Koepke, who is tied for UMD’s team-high with 13 goals. “A lot of older guys started it when they had a lot of good teams, like in 2007 when they won (the Class A title).”
Hermantown has won two more state championships since and been runners-up seven times.
They’ve done so behind top-notch, homegrown talent that includes 2013 Hobey Baker Award winner Drew LeBlanc of St. Cloud State and former UMD defenseman and current Winnipeg Jet Neal Pionk, who has logged 211 games in the NHL.
“It’s a reflection on the youth program and the high school program,” said Biondi, a freshman forward whose father, Joe, played at UMD from 1989-93. “We’ve developed tremendous players and a lot of college players that are doing well. It’s definitely a culture we have. A lot of us want to be Bulldogs, and a lot of us want to go somewhere that’s going to win.”
Krause says that culture is fostered by families who are invested in the program and go the extra mile.
“The six in the Frozen Four all come from good families and that does help create the culture needed to win,” Krause said. “It’s largely talent, but a lot of it is the culture that they helped contribute to. … It all comes from being raised the right way and a team-first mentality. Success breeds success.”
And the pipeline doesn’t appear ready to shut down any time soon. Hermantown senior defenseman Joey Pierce is headed to UMD to join ex-teammate Biondi, while Plante’s oldest son, Zam, was Hermantown’s leading scorer as a sophomore and has a Division I future.
That doesn’t mean Derek Plante will be able to funnel him to UMD — it didn’t work that way in the Sandelin household — but the Hermantown community supports their players no matter where they end up.
“Everyone from high school all the way down to mites, it seems like a family,” Ryan Sandelin said. “Everyone has each others’ backs; it’s a real tight-knit community.”
Rink rats aplenty
That closeness is first exhibited on Hermantown’s five outdoor rinks.
With only one indoor facility, the younger kids spend endless winter hours on the adjacent rinks.
“The biggest thing (to Hermantown’s success) is our outdoor facilities in the winter,” said Ryan Sandelin, who enters the Frozen Four with seven goals, including the overtime game-winner against Quinnipiac in an NCAA regional semifinal. “Kids are able to go right after school and stay as long as they want.
“The generation of kids I grew up with, our parents would drop our bags off at the rink before they went to work and then we’d run over after school and get on the rink as quick as we could and stay as long as we could. The outdoor rinks are vital to allow kids to develop.”
Wyatt Aamodt, a Minnesota State junior defenseman, recalls how something as simple as handing out T-shirts to kids who spent 40 hours on the outside rinks was incentive enough.
“When we were kids, we thought that was the coolest thing,” said Aamodt, who has two goals and five assists in 27 games. “All of us going to the Frozen Four easily surpassed 40 hours. We probably did that over Christmas break alone.”
All that ice time with friends, termed rink-ratting, is where many players honed their craft.
“We’re just out there having fun with our buddies and that’s just another part of that community and culture in Hermantown that makes hockey fun for the kids,” Koepke said. “When you go out rink-ratting with your buddies, it’s more relaxing and reminds you how much you really enjoy the game. That’s where everyone finds that creative side of their game.”
Aamodt, who texts with Koepke on a daily basis, says it’s not the players who deserve the plaudits. He says there are a number of behind-the-scenes members of the community, from those who head out at midnight to freeze the ice surfaces to those who volunteer their time to coach.
“I credit our youth coaches and the dedication the entire community gives to the hockey program,” Aamodt said. “The people flooding the rinks — I don’t think we thank those people enough for what they did to get us to this point. We have to tip our caps to those guys who have done a lot more for us than we could do for that program.”