Hockey, family, school make for a balancing act for Bemidji State’s Wacker

Playing college hockey is challenging enough. Factor in a wife, Jyllisa, and their daughter, Raya, who is in kindergarten, and 5-foot-7 Bemidji State defenseman Brady Wacker’s contributions on the ice and success in the classroom are all the more impressive.

The 24-year-old business major from Jansen, Saskatchewan, is a WCHA Scholar Athlete and one of the unsung heroes on the Beavers squad.

“He is a heart-and-soul kid; real salt of the earth,” Beavers coach Tom Serratore said. “He comes in and quietly does his job. He may not be the biggest guy on the ice but he has the heart of a lion. He’s a hockey player.”

“Having a wife, daughter and being an excellent student who will graduate in four years really shows the kind of man he is. He is an important part of our program.”

The most difficult part is balancing family, teammates, classwork and hockey. Jyllisa is a full-time nursing student at BSU so there are considerable demands on them both.

“You just have to stay on top of your schedule,” Wacker said. “It can be a bit interesting at times but Jyllisa works so hard to make it work. Raya has been wonderful, too. I do not go out with the guys as much as I used to before we were married. Sometimes we let the [players] babysit — some of them.”

Note: Wacker is the first subject of an occasional series on the behind-the-scenes players in the WCHA who may not get much media attention since their stats do not grab attention, but are big contributors to their team in other less-obvious ways.

Spotlight series in Colorado

The 20th anniversary of the Gold Pan Trophy — the award given to the annual winner of the Colorado College-Denver regular season series — is this year. The first two games are this weekend when third-place CC hosts WCHA-leading Denver on Friday followed by the Tigers traveling north to Magness Arena on Saturday.

Both teams are coming off league sweeps with CC (7-3, 4-0 WCHA) having won four games in a row and Denver (7-1, 5-1) three.

“There is a different feeling in our locker room without a doubt,” DU coach George Gwozdecky said. “It will be a great, great war starting on Friday night. Our guys are really excited about taking the first step to regaining that Gold Pan.”

The trophy was developed by former Pioneers coach Frank Serratore, now at Air Force, and past CC coach Don Lucia, currently at Minnesota, to further stoke the rivalry. Not that it really needed it. Oft-recalled-but-often-never-verified legends such as pieces of dead swans being thrown onto the ice and former CC goalie Eddie Mio being knocked out by a thrown object at the old Broadmoor Ice Palace are favorites of the older fans. Such things do not happen now.

“Things are different nowadays,” Tigers coach Scott Owens said. “The players and fans are different. The players are all talking on the Internet and all know each other.

“It doesn’t take away from the competitiveness of the series.”

Both teams are in the top three in offense and defense during league play.

“The Tigers are playing really well and are undefeated in the league,” Gwozdecky said. “Their forwards are among the league leaders as are ours. Their goaltenders are playing well and so are ours.”

“They have a strong defensive corps and good goaltending,” Owens said. “Their forwards are contributing. They are the real deal.”

The Tigers have shown considerable offensive balance with seniors Scott Winkler (six goals), William Rapuzzi (five goals), Rylan Schwartz (seven assists) and junior Alexander Krushelnyski (five goals) all with 10 points in 10 games.

Denver junior Nick Shore has 13 points (eight assists) while sophomore Joey LaLeggia has nine (five assists) with eight each from senior Chris Knowlton (five goals) and freshman Nolan Zajac (six assists).

The original pan (actually used by gold prospectors) was first awarded in 1994, but was misplaced after Denver’s 2004 national championship party and never recovered. The current traveling trophy was donated in 2006. CC won that trophy last season to improve to 11-8 in the Gold Pan series and put it back in its spot between the program’s two Hobey Baker Award winners.

“I think it represents the best in college athletics, not just hockey,” Owens said. “The fans are excited all week. The quality of play is good and because both programs have been successful, they are always meaningful games from a league standpoint.

“It is a great trophy to have there on the shelf.”

UNO finding identity, getting wins

The Nebraska-Omaha defense isn’t giving up much in scoring chances, goaltender John Faulkner has been solid and the Mavericks are scoring just enough goals to raise some eyebrows around the WCHA.

UNO swept Michigan Tech on the road and Minnesota-Duluth at home following a home series in which Bemidji State took three points.

“It took a little bit to figure out what kind of team we were,” senior Brent Gwidt said. “These past couple weekends, we were a really fast team. I thought we executed well with our passes and goal scoring has been real good.”

The Mavericks took care of business against Tech and UMD, teams most expected them to get points against based on the rough patches the Huskies and Bulldogs are going through.

UNO is on a bye this week but going into December has the opportunity to prove itself on the road at Minnesota (Nov. 30, Dec. 1) and St. Cloud State (Dec. 7-8).

“We’ll stick to the minor details and know what kind of team we are rather than try to change what we’re doing,” Gwidt said.

But the Mavericks certainly will not and cannot overlook the nonconference opponent they play in the meantime: Alabama-Huntsville.

Former Chargers goaltender and current UND goalie Clarke Saunders stopped 101 of 103 shots in UAH’s two wins against UNO in January 2011 and December 2011 (The Saunders-UNO rematch is set for Feb. 8-9 in Omaha).

The Chargers won six games the last two seasons altogether.

“It was tough the past two years, going 2-2 against them the past two years,” Faulkner said. “[UAH] is going to come out and work hard and we have to establish ourselves as the home team.”

Faulkner has been a big reason for the Mavericks’ wins over the past two weeks, raising his save percentage to .915 while his goals against average remains low at 2.03.

“We have a lot of talent on our back end at defense,” Faulkner said. “That’s the strength of the team. I have a lot of confidence in those guys to take care of the little things.”

Saturday night is not all right

After two weeks it might have looked like a coincidence when North Dakota won both of its Friday games but was still looking for a win on Saturday.

The Saturday woes became noteworthy when UND lost 4-2 to Boston University a night after it beat the Terriers 4-2.

Now, it’s a head-scratcher. UND got a 3-0 shutout to begin its most recent series at St. Cloud State but lost 5-2 last Saturday.

The Huskies had chances aplenty early but as the game wore on, UND’s sticks clogged up the lanes and for the better part of 40 minutes kept SCSU from getting quality opportunities.

Good teams go through weird stretches like this where they can’t seem to find wins on particular nights for whatever reason. From Nov. 11 to Feb. 10 of last season, Minnesota was 3-7 on Fridays.

UND’s problems on Saturday can be partially attributed to the power play, which is 1-for-12 on Saturdays. UND has three power-play goals on 12 opportunities on Fridays.

UND has been outshot 132-111 on Saturdays but has outshot its opponents 128-93 on Fridays. Perhaps the most telling statistic, though, is the 8-1 goals disadvantage in Saturday third periods.

“It’s consistency in terms of execution,” defenseman Nick Mattson said in a news conference Wednesday, describing what was lacking in UND’s loss to SCSU Saturday.

“The focus and effort were there but as far as execution, we weren’t as sharp as we were Friday.”

UND’s opponent this weekend: Minnesota-Duluth, which is 0-3-1 in series finales.

Quick hits

• Two Denver players lead the country in points per game by defensemen. Zajac (2-6–8) is averaging 1.14 points per game and LaLeggia (4-5–9) averages 1.12. Both play left defense so they’re rarely on the ice together. Zajac’s average is third-best among rookies across the nation.

• The Pioneers still have the widest scoring margin in the nation at 2.25 goals per game.

• Minnesota-Duluth averages 19 penalty minutes per game, most in the nation. That hasn’t been good for the Bulldogs penalty kill, which has been less than average (80.5 percent).

• Five of Minnesota’s six goals at Alaska-Anchorage were scored on the man advantage to put the Gophers’ power play at 28.6 percent. That caused the Seawolves’ penalty kill to plummet to 73 percent, the worst PK percentage in the nation.

• There isn’t a whole lot of news to report as of Wednesday evening on the Wisconsin assistant coach search to replace Bill Butters. The last report was that the inquiries head coach Mike Eaves immediately received via phone about the position opening reached double digits. That’s according to the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Andy Baggot, who reported Wednesday that former Badgers player Mark Strobel and Mark LeRose (who was a partial-season Wisconsin assistant in a similar situation in 2003-04) contacted Eaves about the job.