It took the Alaska Nanooks more than 30 years to earn a berth in the NCAA Division I hockey tournament. It then took just under two periods of play for a freshman forward from Woodridge, Ill., to etch his name in the school record book for all time.
Andy Taranto fired home the first-ever national tournament goal in Nanooks history in March, when he converted a power-play rebound off Boston College netminder John Muse late in the second period of their NCAA Northeast Regional meeting at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.
“I didn’t even think about that,” Taranto admitted concerning his historical feat last spring. “It was our first time going there, and I’m honored.
“It was huge for me and my family,” he added of his goal. “They were watching back home, and it was nice to get one for them.”
BC went on to pull out a 3-1 victory en route to its second national title in three years, but it was the team with players from B.C., Alberta, Alaska and, yes, Illinois, that served notice it intended to be back at the big dance.
“I think we played BC the toughest,” Taranto said from his home outside Chicago just before Christmas. “If we get another [NCAA] opportunity, we want to beat a good team, not just come close.”
Taranto made his way from The Prairie State to Fairbanks by way of Fargo, N.D. That’s where he finished a three-year tenure in the United States Hockey League in 2008-09, scoring a league-leading 34 goals for the expansion Fargo Force. He previously played for both the Omaha Lancers and the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets.
Sacred Heart and Robert Morris both showed interest in him at the college level; in the end, Taranto chose to trek all the way west to the Alaskan Interior. A little familiarity from home didn’t hurt, either, in the form of Berwyn, Ill., native Joe Sova, now a junior defenseman with the Nanooks.
“It was just a feeling I got from the coaches and players,” Taranto said. “Joe is a buddy of mine from back home, and the coaches promised me an opportunity to jump in right away and be an impact player.”
Taranto, 22, didn’t wait long to get himself on a college score sheet, as he tallied two assists in just his second game last season, a 5-1 win over Mercyhurst at the Kendall Classic in Anchorage. His first career goal came just six days later, in a 4-2 triumph over Robert Morris at the Alaska Goal Rush at Fairbanks’ Carlson Center.
By season’s end, the 6-foot, 225-pound right wing had amassed 18 goals and 24 assists for 42 points to finish second in team scoring and earn a berth on the CCHA all-rookie team. He also collected CCHA all-conference honorable mention accolades, and was a CCM rookie of the year finalist after twice being tabbed as the Hockey Commissioners’ Association rookie of the month.
Eight of No. 29′s goals came on the power play, while he also garnered three game-winners to go along with 54 penalty minutes. Taranto also tallied Alaska’s first hat tricks in four seasons, scoring three goals apiece in victories over Ohio State and Alaska-Anchorage.
One place you can always find Taranto is around the enemy cage, stick at the ready, looking for a deflection or a rebound to pounce on.
“That’s probably the strength he has offensively, and he knows where the goals are at,” said Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson, himself a former Nanooks blueliner. “He gets a lot of scoring opportunities because he’s willing to go to the tough areas in front of the net.”
“It’s just going to the front of the net, picking up the trash and getting into the dirty areas,” Taranto said. “I’m one of the bigger forwards on our team, and it’s kind of my job. If I don’t get bruised, I don’t feel I’ve played well.”
Away from the ice, Taranto is majoring in communications, and hopes to add a minor in sports management. He considers academics his priority, but playing-wise would like to improve both his skating and foot speed.
“Our coaches do a great job encompassing skill work at a high pace,” he said. “It’s all the stuff you need as a forward, including shot-blocking.”
He missed three games after taking a puck off the ankle against Northern Michigan in November, but returned to tally a goal in each of two games at Ferris State to close out the first semester. He opened the scoring in the first Ferris contest off feeds from linemate Carlo Finucci and Sova, and sealed the finale with an overtime game-winner set up by Sova and linemate Jarret Granberg.
“That was huge, especially coming back after being injured,” said Taranto, who had six goals and 10 points in his first 15 games this season. “It was just working hard, and our line had been clicking in practice and creating a lot of chances. It was nice to see the things we worked on benefiting the team.”
Taranto added a goal and an assist in the first game back from the holiday break, against Western Michigan. Through 17 games this season, he has seven goals and five assists.
“He blocked a shot off his ankle and missed the Ohio State series, but he works hard and goes to the net, and inevitably he gets scoring chances,” Ferguson said. “He’s got a good stick, and he puts those opportunities away when he gets them.”
Taranto, who first took up the game when he was 3 years old and has maintained a passion for it ever since, is still just taking it the proverbial one day at a time.
“I don’t want to jump too far into the future,” he said. “This season and my education are important to me, and I want to give myself options. Coach has emphasized that we have a fallback plan, and education is No. 1 right now.”
Undrafted, Taranto hopes to eventually convert his experience in the CCHA into a pro playing shot.
“It’s definitely a tough league, and there’s not much difference top to bottom this year,” he said. “It’s exciting to be playing against some big-name schools I grew up watching all the time, and it’s exciting to experience that college atmosphere in places close to home.”
And in one 3,500 miles away from it.