Thursday, January 01, 2015

Rare International Journey Starts Second-Half Grind

The UMD men's hockey team hasn't left the country since 1984, when it went to Russia and split games against the Russian Junior Red Army team in Leningrad and Moscow.

It hasn't played in Canada since 1964, when the Bulldogs traveled to a city that doesn't even exist anymore.

Well, sort of.

UMD's last Canadian trip was to Port Arthur, Ont., on Dec. 26, 1964, for a 6-6 tie against the Port Arthur North Stars.

Port Arthur isn't Port Arthur anymore. Now, it's known as Thunder Bay, and that's where Scott Sandelin takes his team for a Friday-Saturday series against Lakehead University.

The games don't count, but they are still critical for the Bulldogs. After a 12-6 first half of the season, UMD is third in the PairWise and in the top ten of meaningless national polls. Those rankings shouldn't be affected this weekend.

(The PWR definitely won't be affected by these results, but UMD could move one way or the other based on other games that actually do count. To keep things simple, root for success to be experienced by teams UMD has beaten.)

The NCAA allows teams to take "foreign tours" once every four years. As an example, the men's basketball team played games at Lakehead earlier in 2014. UMD's women's soccer team went to Europe for practices, games, and sightseeing before its season started in the fall. The Wisconsin men's basketball team went to Canada last year. There are numerous examples.

Logistically, it isn't a huge deal. Staff went through the process late in the summer and early in the fall to ensure that all players had passports. The team's Canadian-born players obviously were good to go, but many of the others probably weren't.

Outside of that, it's just  booking a hotel, planning meals, and figuring out when to go to Tim Horton's.

Oh, and there's hockey. Like I said, the games don't count. But there is work to be done for UMD. Significant games lie ahead, starting next weekend but continuing through to the end of the season.

"Like when you start the year, you have a starting point," Sandelin said this week. "You come off the break, and it's nice to play and get back into game mode. The opportunity to play two games is good, because we get right into the fire the following weekend at North Dakota."

The Bulldogs will use all healthy players this weekend, and Sandelin said they were going to get playing time for all three goalies: Kasimir Kaskisuo, Matt McNeely, and Alex Fons. The plan was not known as of Wednesday, but while it might seem obvious UMD will ride Kaskisuo as far as possible, Sandelin wants the others to be ready for everything that could happen.

Why Thunder Bay?

UMD played Michigan Tech Dec. 12-13. With no holiday tournament on the docket for 2014-15, the next scheduled games were next weekend, Jan. 9-10 at North Dakota. Wisely, Sandelin didn't want to go into Grand Forks off a 27-day break.

Lakehead, a frequent exhibition opponent for the Bulldogs, was a natural fit. The Thunderwolves had a hole in the schedule, it's not even a four-hour drive in good weather, and UMD could play two exhibition games instead of one, giving more players a chance to play in different situations.

Sandelin says Kyle Osterberg will not play this weekend. Osterberg is nursing an undisclosed injury, but is expected back for North Dakota. Junior Charlie Sampair jumped into Osterberg's spot on the third line in practice this week.

Asked if Sandelin was hoping for some recruiting exposure with this trip, he didn't say no, but he wasn't emphatic about it. The veteran coach noted that his staff recruits in Canada, and UMD's had some notable players from Thunder Bay over the years (Travis and Bill Oleksuk probably chief among them). Many of the city's top midget players end up in the OHL, but it's fertile ground for young hockey players. If UMD can turn some families on to the idea of playing college hockey with this trip, it'll be a win for the sport and the school.

Hopefully it's an enjoyable trip for the team and staff. Me? Looking forward to some Timbits. 6:30 games Friday and Saturday if you're inclined to check them out.

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