From walk-on to game-winning hero

Connor Gaarder’s recent goal in double overtime brings back memories of junior’s start on the team

Connor Gaarder garnered attention after his game-winning double-overtime goal last weekend that sent North Dakota to the Frozen Four.

But the first impression the junior forward left on his teammates wouldn’t have led any of them to believe he would be the hero that night.

“I think it was the first day he was here we did (some skating tests),” senior captain Dillon Simpson said with a laugh. “I remember him absolutely dying, not being able to maybe finish it even. It kind of shows how hard he’s worked and how far he’s come. He’s been a huge part of our success this year.”

UND coach Dave Hakstol also recalls when Gaarder stepped on the ice for practice.

“I remember the exact day,” he said. “It was early in the season. It was conditioning, and obviously Connor got a late start and he hadn’t had plans made to join our program. Our guys had been training since the previous April and May getting ready and knowing what they’re in for. He jumped into the ball game a little bit late, but I’m sure all of our teammates remember him having trouble finishing that conditioning drill.

“But I’ll also guarantee the will that he showed in actually finishing it, and that’s what stands out to me. Not the fact that he was a half-step slow at the time. It was what he did when he hit that wall. He just kept going.”

Gaarder joined the team as a walk-on his freshman year in 2011-12, after assistant coach Dane Jackson saw him play.

The level of compete Gaarder showed proved a factor North Dakota needed on its roster — a skater with the ability to perform in any situation.

Gaarder quietly went about his rookie season, tallying four goals and six assists while nearly matching his statistics his sophomore year with four goals and seven assists. This season, Gaarder’s eight goals and eight assists have come in accordance with his willingness to put it all on the line.

“Gaarder’s story is pretty incredible,” junior Mark MacMillan said. “He brings a lot to the room that probably a lot of people don’t see. The way he plays with energy and providing guys with energy is what he does in the locker room, too. He says the right things at the right time. Connor is the kind of guy that every team wants on their team.

“He’s willing to do whatever it takes, whether he’s going out there for two shifts a game or 100 shifts of the game.”

His quiet demeanor is what separates him from his teammates, but his actions speak volumes.

“He doesn’t talk a whole lot, but when he says stuff, he says the right things,” MacMillan said. “He’s part of our leadership group. He’s one of the guys that steps up and does stuff. He’s always got some good one-liners in the locker room to keep guys on their toes.”

The regional final allowed Gaarder to showcase his style. In what has become a common theme this season of different skaters stepping on up in different games, Gaarder became one of the heroes that night after he and Stephane Pattyn tallied the only goals for UND.

If Hakstol would have been told three years ago that his team would be in the national tournament thanks to the standout efforts from Gaarder and Pattyn, he might have shaken his head.

“At that time, nobody would believe it, right?” he said. “But that’s the story. There are a lot of chapters yet to be written for those guys. They’re only juniors right now, but those two guys don’t pass up many opportunities to get better or do things right. Usually at the end of the day, those are the guys that have a little bit of good luck along the way. And those two guys are a big part of our team, leadership wise, on the ice and off the ice, so that’s a feather in their cap.”

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