Golden Eagles finding out how far they've come as first season nears its end
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — To say the Minnesota Crookston club hockey team's first season hasn't gone as planned would be a mild understatement, at the very least.
In truth, most of this winter's unpredictabilities stem from one source. When the program was announced in January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Golden Eagles had an idea of how Year One was going to go. They were going to play 20 or so games as an ACHA Division II Independent. Head coach Steve Johnson, one of the most successful junior hockey coaches of all time, was going to sell a storied program and vision of the future to talented recruits. UMC hockey would be off and running in little to no time.
But as the Golden Eagles near the end of a fickle first campaign, one that's seen more losses than wins and seen four games cancelled due to COVID-19, they're still confident they're on the right track.
While UMC's had plenty of firsts (obviously) this winter, it achieved another one Saturday morning, cruising to a 5-1 victory over North Dakota's club team at Purpur Arena in Grand Forks. Saturday's win came just 16 hours after an 8-1 victory over the Fighting Hawks, and enabled the Golden Eagles (4-7) to savor their first weekend sweep.
"We didn't play quite as good as we did yesterday, but sometimes it's to be expected after a seven-goal win," Johnson said. "It's the first weekend sweep that we've had, so it's nice for the guys to win both games on the weekend."
It was needed relief after the last month. UMC came into the weekend on a six-game losing streak, albeit one that Johnson called "misleading." The reason: the Golden Eagles played two games against the University of Mary, the No. 1 team in the ACHA Division II rankings, and four against No. 4 Williston State.
"We knew scheduling those guys would be real challenging for us," Johnson said. "But we wanted the guys who would be back next year to know what kind of schedule we'll have the whole year. We'll potentially be in a league with those type of teams, and that's something that's important for our guys to understand. It's a pretty good level of play."
With just 15 players on the roster, it's clear Minnesota Crookston is still building towards that level of play. Johnson admitted that recruiting has been difficult so far, considering the uncertainty surrounding what the Golden Eagles' season would look like. Taking that view, even a 15-player roster is a success.
"It was hard to really sell something to (recruits)," he said. "We just wanted to provide an opportunity for kids who wanted to keep playing, and that's what we've done. We've been happy with it. It's been a lot of fun, and guys have worked hard and we just continue to get better."
The inaugural roster may be thin, but make no mistake: UMC has real talent and experience. Casey Kallock, a junior defenseman and the team's leading scorer with 16 points, played in the NAHL with the Minot Minotauros. Cam Olstad, a sophomore transfer from Wisconsin-Stout, played Junior A hockey in Manitoba, and now leads the Golden Eagles with 10 goals. Freshman goaltender Jake Sumner, who's started every game in net, played junior hockey in the NA3HL with the Breezy Point North Stars. Freshmen forwards Tyler Zahradka and Zach Larson won North Dakota state championships with Grand Forks Central H.S.
Of course, the process of coming together as a team has taken time. Kallock admitted the Golden Eagles weren't totally sure what to expect before the season began, in large part due to being a brand-new program with a small roster. But that doesn't mean they didn't have confidence in themselves.
"We know that we have good leadership, good locker-room chemistry," said Ben Trostad, a junior defenseman from Crookston. "... We got a couple guys that can put the puck in the back of the net and carry the puck and move the puck well. We move the puck very well, we skate well, we move it together. We're not really individualistic, I guess. We play as a team."
Against North Dakota, a club team with a roster no bigger than UMC's, that showed. The Golden Eagles scored three first-period goals and twice more in the second, before easing off for the final 20 minutes. Kallock scored two goals to lead the way, but four players found the net and seven got on the scoresheet one way or another.
Things will be tougher for Minnesota Crookston as it finishes its season. The Golden Eagles are scheduled to take on Minnesota State Moorhead ("scheduled" being the operative word) next week, before hosting the University of Jamestown in its final regular-season series March 12-13.
"It will be a good test for us to finish the year off with Jamestown," Johnson said. "Just to see how far we've come and what things we need to work on."
No matter what happens that final weekend, the future appears bright for Minnesota Crookston. 10 of its 15 players are freshmen, and forward Brian Bekkala is the lone senior. With Johnson's coaching pedigree, it's almost a given that the Golden Eagles' numbers will grow.
Trostad, for one, sees it coming. He expects a deeper, more talented roster next year, and plenty of other changes. But for now?
"Just win. We wanna win. All these guys in the locker room, we all wanna win."
Minnesota Crookston 3-2-0—5
North Dakota 0-0-1—1
- 16:35 first period (UMC): Casey Kallock
- 2:40 first period (UMC): Zach Larson power play
- 1:50 first period (UMC): Casey Kallock (Tristan Morneault)
- 7:29 second period (UMC): Tristan Morneault (Ty Hamre, Ben Trostad)
- 6:09 second period (UMC): Josh Nelson (Casey Kallock, Cam Olstad) power play
- 3:03 third period (North Dakota)
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