Age just a number for UND senior

LEADER North Dakota hockey team chooses young captain for upcoming season.

Dillon Simpson prepares to hit the puck last year as a junior. This year, the senior defenseman will step into the role as captain for the Green and White. File photo.

It’s a season of change.

A new conference, new leaders and new green helmets for home games — all part of the excitement of a fresh season of UND men’s hockey.

Amidst other adjustments, Dillon Simpson will be wearing the “C” on his shoulder this year. He’s only 20, but the senior defenseman is by no means a level below his teammates.

“I don’t think it’s an issue,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “I think it’s an interesting talking point and a valid one. He’s only 20 years old, and we’ve got freshmen who are older than him. But it’s really not about the date on your birth certificate — it’s about your level of maturity and your life experiences, your mindset and your ability to be consistent and accountable and do things the right way. I think Dillon is at the highest level of all of those areas.”

When he first put on a North Dakota jersey, Simpson was thrown into an unfamiliar situation, but  he quickly revealed early leadership qualities.

Despite limited playing time, Simpson waited patiently for a chance on the ice. But his willingness and attitude in that situation spoke as loud as his actions in a jersey.

“I think you could see the beginnings of this when he was a 17-year-old freshman,” Hakstol said.  “He was on a very deep defensive core that year. He handled the ups and the downs that freshman year — which there were a lot of games he didn’t dress — he handled those so well and he instantly gained respect within his teammates from the way he handled himself. That was, to me, really the foundation of his leadership role today.”

For Simpson, the age factor isn’t an issue.

It’s an occasional conversation in the locker room, but never something he thinks too deeply about. There may be older freshmen, but with support at all levels within the locker room, he is ready to take on his new role.

“It’s something we all joke about, but it’s nothing that I really think about,” Simpson said. “For me, it’s not that much more pressure. Some people try to put pressure on me, but we’ve got a great group of guys that are going to make it easy for me and a great group of leadership that puts some of the pressure off me.”

Joining Simpson as leaders on the team are juniors Steph Pattyn and Michael Parks. The duo is prepared for the “A”s on their shoulders and the ability to help carry the team forward.

“I’m very excited,” Pattyn said. “It’s an honor, obviously, and it’s nice to be put in a role where I can be myself and help the team.”

Emerging leaders

In the process of choosing leaders, the coaches played no role — it was simply the team.

“The coaches had no part in that,” Hakstol said. “We did not want to pick the captains. We wanted our leaders to emerge from the things they were doing on a daily basis, and then allow their teammates to make that final decision.”

The decision was made, but the team will still have to work toward developing itself on the ice.

“It’s the same things right now,” Hakstol said. “Let’s let players’ work on the ice dictate who’s on the power play and who plays on what line. That then, in turn, dictates who the guys are that are going to step forward.”

Among the familiar faces hoping to secure ice time are eight new freshmen that have already melded well with the team.

The changes have been made, and the ultimate goal is in the back of everyone’s mind.

“They’ve all come in good shape,” Pattyn said. “For them to fit in as freshmen this early is huge. We’re just a closer group and very balanced. Now that we’re all at the same level, we can keep moving forward and move toward that one goal — which is a national championship.”

Elizabeth Erickson is the sports editor of The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected]