Skating path leads back home

UND men’s hockey player, Grand Forks native remembers journey the the Ralph.

Freshman defenseman Paul LaDue skates against St. Cloud earlier this season. Photo by Chester Beltowski/The Dakota Student.

At three years old, his skates were laced and his blades skated across the smooth surface at Optimist Park in Grand Forks — the place that forever holds the memory of Paul LaDue’s first time on the ice.

LaDue grew up attending UND men’s hockey games as a fan, and eventually traded his seat in the stands for a spot on the bench.

“I was a little nervous right away, but it’s been great,” he said. “I love playing here. During the week, I just can’t wait to play here on Friday and Saturday. It’s just so special knowing that. Growing up here, you just want to put on that jersey, and it’s really exciting.”

In 23 games played this season, the freshman defenseman has tallied three goals and six assists for nine points.

But before he put on the green and white, LaDue spent two seasons with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL — posting a record-setting 83 points for a defenseman and was named Defenseman of the Year in 2012-13.

With familiar territory, but new Division I level, LaDue’s transition has been fitting.

“He’s just gaining a little swagger at this level,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “We knew he was ready to play here. We knew he had the physical and mental maturity to be a good player right away, but as of late — probably since Christmas — we’re not just seeing a good player, we’re seeing a confident player that’s playing with a little swagger in a lot of different situations.”

LaDue said it was a bit of an adjustment to play at UND, but he keeps his focus on the ice.

“It’s a little different being on the ice than the stands, but I don’t really notice the fans very much when I’m out there playing — it’s kind of what I expected,” LaDue said. “At first, I was thinking of maybe going away from home.

“But once I got the opportunity to come here, I didn’t look back.”

Fellow freshman and Grand Forks native Luke Johnson not only shared the experience of coming to a new school at the same time as LaDue — the two also are cousins.

Johnson played alongside LaDue at Lincoln in juniors, leading the team with nine power-play goals in 57 games during the 2012-13 season while recording 46 points. One year prior, in 2011-12, Johnson accumulated 55 points in 55 games.

The two have spent many years on the ice together, and college provided yet another opportunity.

“I played with him in high school and I played with him in juniors,” LaDue said. “It’s just great, being able to experience that again. Actually, we went to a lot of games together here, so it’s really fun.”

While the seven freshmen in the lineup this season bring different backgrounds and talents, a majority stems from the greater Grand Forks area.

LaDue, Johnson and their Grand Forks home sits just across the river from Gage Ausmus’ roots in East Grand Forks, while Keaton Thomson’s hometown of Devils Lake, N.D., is less than two hours away. The four compliment the three Canada natives — Troy Stetcher, Wade Murphy and Matt Hrynkiw.

Family ties may be pulled tight, but the dynamic from the entire freshman class is something Hakstol sees as encouraging.

“I’m sure the two support each other well,” Hakstol said. “Obviously, they know each other well. But I think that whole group of freshmen is just so close and so tight. Wherever you see one or two, it seems like you see all seven of them — and that’s a pretty neat dynamic, and obviously Luke and Paul are a part of that — but there are five other guys that are part of that tight group as well.”

LaDue and the rest of the freshman class have continued to develop in their roles, and the expectations for the rest of the season linger in their minds.

“These next 10 games are huge, and hopefully we can keep it going,” LaDue said. “They’re must win games. Each series from here on out is the biggest series of the year.”

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