Blue-collar North Dakota sees rewards for perseverance through sometimes-trying season

North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi and Zane Gothberg have fed off the criticism the team has faced this season (photo: Rachel Lewis).

When William Penn arrived at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers in the late 1600s and set up his plans for a new city, he tied two Greek words together and came up with an iconic name for an iconic town: Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, symbolizing peace and brotherhood.

Come April 10, peace won’t be part of the equation. But when the puck drops for the Frozen Four in Philly, a self-described “band of brothers” will put themselves on the line once again, this time to get one step closer to college hockey’s ultimate prize.

2014 Frozen Four

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At 25-13-3, North Dakota doesn’t have the most untarnished of records. The struggles of the inaugural season in the NCHC nearly torpedoed UND’s 11-season NCAA tournament appearance streak.

Despite having to recover from a 4-7-2 start, despite needing to scoreboard-watch to even make the NCAA tournament and despite all of the other bumps along the way, here’s North Dakota, one of the last four teams standing after defeating Wisconsin and Ferris State in the Midwest Regional.

The rest of the college hockey world appears surprised by a 14th overall seed dispatching two teams mentioned in the national title conversation in back-to-back nights to book its ticket to the Frozen Four. But in the North Dakota locker room, there’s only satisfaction of all the work this blue-collar team has put into a trying season.

“It’s great to see a payoff pitch for how hard our team has battled back throughout the year,” senior captain Dillon Simpson said. “Younger guys stepping up and everyone playing their roles to the best of their ability — it’s been an amazing thing to be a part of.”

As is to be expected of a team that attracts so much attention in the national spotlight, the criticism was loud at times. But instead of breaking the team down, the criticism seems to have only made this team stronger and closer.

“Everybody’s been doubting us all year,” forward Rocco Grimaldi said. “Slow start, people were doubting us. Were we going to even get out of the NCHC playoffs? Were we going to have home ice? We’ve proved the doubters wrong all year.”

There’s no doubt evident inside that locker room. Only determination.

“I think we expect a lot from ourselves in that room, and that’s the biggest thing,” said forward Stephane Pattyn. “We know how good we are and I think coming in as a four seed, just sneaking in, we kind of took that as a challenge. We’re a great team and we know we deserve to be here and I think we proved that this weekend.”

And in the process, something else has been evident: how much fun this team is having.

“That’s key,” said goaltender Zane Gothberg. “I know [assistant coach] Brad Berry last week talked about it a lot at the NCHC tournament: ‘Just have some fun, go out there and compete and see what happens.’ Our team’s doing that. We’re competing every night, but in the process having fun and living a little.”

The team’s mood was especially evident after UND clinched its 20th Frozen Four in program history, when hugs and laughs abounded on the U.S. Bank Arena ice sheet in Cincinnati as players congratulated each other. This is a team that has not forgotten how much fun the game of hockey is, even if it’s a lot of work. And clearly that is not lost on coach Dave Hakstol when describing his team’s identity.

North Dakota’s Stephane Pattyn said his team took being a fourth seed in the Midwest Regional as a challenge (photo: Rachel Lewis).

“You can probably tag a lot of words — some resiliency, a hard-working team, a very determined team,” Hakstol said. “It’s a bunch of hard-working guys that are having fun with each other. That’s a pretty good formula this time of year. It kind of takes the pressure off a little bit.”

As it was all weekend in the regionals, UND will be an underdog in the Frozen Four semifinals against Minnesota. But the collection of 26 personalities in the UND locker room has come too far to worry about the underdog label and has too much pride to be satisfied now. After all, the history of the program exudes a higher expectation.

“Growing up, you just hear about North Dakota and North Dakota hockey,” Gothberg said. “It’s just tradition. It’s something we take pride in every single day whether it’s in practice or in games. A lot of it starts with the coaching staff instilling that level of compete and that pride.

“It feels great. All of our hard work is definitely going for a good cause. I know it’s a band of brothers here that we’re ready to rock with.”