Union prepares for new experience playing Fighting Hawks in Grand Forks
GRAND FORKS — Union coach Rick Bennett had a conversation with team psychologist Wally Bzdell this week about the impending series at North Dakota.
They talked about the 11,634-seat Ralph Engelstad Arena, which will provide an unusual setting for the players.
No team in Union's conference, the Eastern College Athletic Conference, has a building that seats more than 5,000. No player on the roster has played a road game in front of more than 5,336, which showed up at Michigan last year.
The closest experience to this would be the annual neutral-site game against rival RPI, which draws about 8,500 in Albany, N.Y.
How will the Dutchmen respond to the large venue this weekend against the University of North Dakota?
"This is something that's going to be new for them," Bennett said. "We don't have an answer on how we're going to respond. But I'm going to try to give my best pregame speech and do the best prep work to get ready for UND."
UND and Union will play a two-game series at 7:37 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24, and 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25, featuring two of college hockey's last four national champions (Union won it in 2014, UND in 2016).
The teams played a single game last year on New Year's Eve in Union's home of Schenectady, N.Y.
Despite playing without stars Tyson Jost, who was at the World Junior championship, and Brock Boeser, who was recovering from wrist surgery, UND managed to escape with a 3-1 win.
Bennett called out his team after that game.
"I just felt that last year it was men against boys there for a while," Bennett said, reflecting back on that game. "We have to get over that. We're going to be in a real tough environment, probably the toughest in the country. We just have to come out and play our game and not get caught up in it and take each period by period.
Union top-line forward Ryan Scarfo said the Dutchmen were caught off guard by UND's size and physicality last season.
"It was a different style than what we're used to," Scarfo said.
Bennett expanded on that.
"It's a whole different style," he said. "It's more of a pro style. We have to be ready for that style. We kind of faced some similar teams to it this year, but not to this magnitude.
"Watching them on film a few games, they're a heavy team, skilled and they transition to offense quickly. If we start turning it over, it's going to be a long night."
On Monday morning, the UND coaching staff starting mapping out a plan.
They checked the roster and made sure every member of the team had a place to go on Thanksgiving.
For the junior class, it was a trip to the Shaw household for the second year in a row.
"They made us a great meal last year," UND defenseman Christian Wolanin said before going over there. "We were lucky enough to be invited back. Mama Shaw makes a sweet potato dish that's unbelievable. I got sick from it last year because I ate way too much of it."
Perhaps Wolanin's teammates have been eating too much on Thanksgiving, too.
The day after Thanksgiving has not been a pleasant one to UND in recent years.
The Fighting Hawks haven't won at home on the day after Thanksgiving since 2011, when they upset Colorado College.
Last season, UND lost to Michigan State—the last-place team in the Big Ten—on Black Friday. In 2014, they tied Omaha. In 2013, they lost to St. Lawrence at home following Thanksgiving—a defeat that prompted an hour-long team meeting in the locker room.
"It wasn't pretty," UND coach Brad Berry said.
One player who wasn't able to come home for Thanksgiving is Union defenseman Taylor Brierley, who helped East Grand Forks Senior High to a pair of state championships.
Brierley, a freshman defense for the Dutchmen, suffered a foot injury before the season started and it hasn't healed yet.
Brierley played with UND's Dixon Bowen and Colton Poolman on those state title teams.
Position of strength
UND goalie Cam Johnson is getting closer and closer to a return, but when he does, the coaching staff will be able to feel comfortable that it has two goaltenders who can win games.
During Johnson's absence, rookie Peter Thome has been solid, posting a 3-1-2 record with a 2.60 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage.
"Peter knows that having a little bit of success hasn't earned him the right to let his foot off the gas," Berry said. "That's a big thing for us and our team mentality. If you have success, you have to keep earning it. You have to keep showing that to have a chance to play another night. That's the beauty of our culture. We don't take things for granted. Peter, as a young guy coming in, knows that."
Union at No. 3 UND
• When: 7:37 p.m. Friday, 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
• Where: Ralph Engelstad Arena.
• TV/radio: Midco Sports Network (GF Ch. 27/622 HD); The Fox (96.1 FM).
• Webcast: NCHC.tv.
• Records: UND 8-3-3, Union 7-6.
• Of note: UND beat Union 3-1 last season in Schenectady, N.Y.