Beer: Fargo Force's season can only end with Clark Cup championship
Hiring a seasoned young coach in Nick Oliver has so far helped reinstall a winning attitude from top to bottom. Its been too good of a year to end with anything but Clark Cup
FARGO — Fargo Force general manager Cary Eades was standing outside the coaches office last week, after the team claimed the Anderson Cup, talking about how he discovered forward Mac Swanson.
He had a pretty good idea who he was looking for.
“I scouted his dad in the ’90s, early ’90s actually … went to camps when he was 14 and 15 years old up in Anchorage. Unfortunately, I was in Dubuque at the time and Omaha won the battle,” Eades said.
So when Eades heard Brian Swanson, a former Hobey Baker finalist who went from the Lancers to Colorado College and into the NHL, had a son who deserved a look, he called up a game online and immediately understood why.
“Of course there's no rosters — nothing, but I'm just watching warmups trying to figure out who is in right away. I could see not only the No. 27, which his dad wore, you know, that gave it away, but just the way he skated,” Eades said, as he recalled watching Mac on the screen. “And then when the game started, you know, they're two peas in a pod.”
The numbers were there. In the previous two seasons, Swanson played for Team Alaska's 14U and 15U teams, registering a total of 56 goals in 74 games. Now a North Dakota commit, Swanson has blossomed as a playmaker for the Force despite not turning 17 until January.
Eades also had an idea of what he was looking for in a new coach.
Wanting to go younger behind the bench, he finessed a former Fargo player in Nick Oliver away from his assistant coaching position at St. Cloud State to replace Scott Langer, who went 28-28-0-6 in his only season.
That move, too, looks good in the rear-view mirror.
It’s momentum just in time for the playoffs, which for the Force begins Friday at home against Tri-City, which swept Sioux City in the first round this week.
On the ice, the players have rallied around their 31-year-old head coach. The team set a club record with wins (40) and points (88). The win total now leaves Madison (33 wins twice in the late '90s) as the only current USHL team yet to reach the 40-win plateau in league history.
Fargo also set a single-season goal record with 230, eclipsing the 229 produced by the 2012-13 squad that got swept 3-0 in the Clark Cup finals.
The Force have the goaltending to win, too, though not quite at the level of the Clark Cup-winning 2017-18 team that featured Strauss Mann (1.86 goals against, third-best in USHL history) and Ryan Bischel (2.24), each better than the No. 2 and 3 ranked Force goaltenders this season.
“You can have all the X's and O's you want, but the guys gotta play hard for you or you're not going to be successful,” Eades said.
Forward Bret Link said Oliver puts plenty of trust in the players. “He'll get honest sometimes, but it's from the best in his heart and it's been great playing for him,” he said.
Oliver has certainly trusted someone that barely would have their driver’s license to run with the top line. That’d be Swanson, who plays wing on the top line with Cole Knuble and Link.
“Everybody loves him, you want to play for him,” said Swanson. “He's fair to everybody, I believe, and he's given me a great opportunity and so many guys on this team … .
“The best coach ever I’ve had by far.”
While Eades gives plenty of credit to captain Kyle Smolen and the rest of the team’s on-ice leadership, he certainly dialed the right numbers for Oliver. While he didn’t start from scratch, keeping assistant Andrew Magera and bringing back old pal Chad Demers, there were many changes on the bench that kept his interest.
“You're always a little uncertain in the summertime,” Eades said. “We felt we had a good draft. We felt we had players coming in. We had a lot of newness with the players, the coaching staff, everything.”
The Anderson Cup, given to the USHL’s best regular season team, is a first. It’s something that eluded Dean Blais, Steve Johnson, John Marks, Eades and Pierre-Paul Lamoureux, all Clark Cup finalists, behind the Force bench.
“It's awesome,” Oliver said when asked about the Force’s first Anderson Cup. “I think for the organization, myself, coach Demers and a lot of people who have been here since 2008 when this building opened … it's a special place."
It’s a winning and collective vibe Eades said should help carry the Force into the postseason and into the future, as well. The team has been at the top all season in the USHL Power Rankings by The Rink Live's Jordan McAlpine, showing its consistency.
Building a tradition and a family atmosphere, Eades said, is something late owner Ace Brandt stressed before he died from brain cancer in 2021.
"Hopefully he's looking down and respects what we do," Eades said.
Perhaps bolstered by a long winter, the Force drew 106,899 fans, averaging 3,448, to Scheels Arena this season in 31 games. It's the team's highest number since 124,894 fans (in 32 games) in 2012-13. The team also sold out its 36 suites this season.
“I think that you can see that directly in our sales this year,” said Katie Merrick, the team’s vice president of business operations. “The better the team is, the more people want to come here and cheer them on. Winning the Clark Cup changes your sales for the next season without a doubt, and even the Anderson Cup.”
If Oliver and the Force can polish off the season with a Clark Cup, mission accomplished. Anything else after this season would be a disappointment.
“I think everybody knows that there's another goal that we would like to get to in about a month and so, so I mean, this is a good step,” Swanson said as the team celebrated the Anderson Cup. “But I think we want something else.”