Emotions run high for UND seniors

After four years, four seniors prepare to say goodbye to fans and the community.

Dillon Simpson skates with the puck earlier this season. This weekend will mark the senior’s last regular season home game. File photo.

Focusing on the task at hand has always been a strong point of this team.

The UND men’s hockey team is aiming to clinch its conference championship this weekend at home against Western Michigan, and the emotions that tag alongside senior weekend linger in the back of each player’s mind.

But with a few weeks left in the season, senior Dillon Simpson is isn’t quite ready to skate down memory lane.

“We’ll leave the sentimental stuff until the end of the season,” he said.

As one of the younger captains in UND history, first wearing the “C” at age 20, Simpson took on his role in stride — using his previous three years as a stepping stone to build bonds with his teammates.

He still thinks back to the thrilling Final Five game against Minnesota a few years ago and the rivalry games that ended in victories, but walking the halls of the Ralph Engelstad Arena and spending time with the guys that share those same memories reigns highest as what he’ll miss.

“I don’t want to look that far down the road, but it’s something I’ve really appreciated over the years,” Simpson said. “It’s a tight knit group where on any given day you’re going to come to the rink and have a good time with your buddies and play hockey. That’s probably the most prominent thing.”

After this weekend, the team will play one more series at The Ralph in the first round of National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs — the winner advancing to Minneapolis for the Frozen Faceoff Tournament on March 21-22.

After conference play, North Dakota is looking to advance into post season action.

Simpson knows the value in competing with a group of guys he’s spent countless hours with, and the four years he’s spent in the Grand Forks community largely becomes a reason to end this season on a high note.

“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “You come into a place like this, you understand how important and how much tradition is in this building and this city. As far as the hockey goes, I’m extremely proud to have been able to play my four years here. It’s been quite a ride. More than anything, though, we’re trying to focus on doing something special this year with this group of guys.”

And he isn’t the only one who shares those thoughts.

“That’s always kind of something we talk about and we have a great group of seniors,” junior defenseman Nick Mattson said. “You don’t really want to focus on it too much because it’s kind of sad, to be honest. These have been three of the best years of my life with these guys and I’m sad to see them go. But if you need any more motivation to win, it’s going to be all for them.”

Straying away from the situation won’t be easy Saturday night as the video tribute to the senior class plays on the big screen above center ice.

As with senior in the past, the emotion runs high.

“Yeah, I think it does, it always does,” Hakstol said. “You never realize it until Saturday night after the game when you see that group out on the ice and see some of the emotions that run pretty high — not only through the players but definitely through the coaching staff and through the fans, and without question throughout their families. It’s an important weekend.

“I think you should celebrate it a little bit. It’s a big weekend in the lives of these young guys that put so much into the program.”

It’s senior weekend. It’s a chance to claim the Penrose Cup. It’s a game that contributes to post-season rankings.

More than anything, it’s a game that emulates opportunity, and the team knows it.

“They’re handling it well,” Hakstol said. “Everybody knows all the things that are at stake this weekend and I think that’s exciting. — you wouldn’t want it any other way. There’s a great opportunity there, and at the end of the day you just have to bring your focus back to taking advantage of that opportunity and doing the work and taking care of the preparation as we would any week going into friday’s game. It’s exciting to get to this point of the year, and without question it’s nice to have a lot on the line.”

While UND’s opponent in NCHC playoffs is yet to be decided, the conclusion of Saturday’s game will determine the rankings. Western Michigan is sitting in the middle of the conference in a fight to claim home ice.

“From all areas there are things going on,” Simpson said. “I think more than anything, you’ve just got to understand where we’re at and the task at hand. Even though we’ve got a young group in there, we’ve got a mature group that understands where we’re at as a team and what needs to be done this weekend.

“We’ll have our time to look back and say, ‘this was a good time for us as seniors’ and big picture stuff, but we’ve got to focus on this weekend and Western Michigan on Friday and Saturday night.”

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