MINNEAPOLIS — Questionable calls are part of sports. Just like injuries, they are unfortunate, and common. Referees are human. A myriad of hockey games have been decided due in part to the actions of a guy holding a whistle, instead of a stick.

Two years ago, in a Big Ten playoff game between the Minnesota Gophers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish inside Compton Family Ice Arena, the home team got a break. Just seconds into overtime, in a contest knotted 1-1, Gophers captain Tyler Sheehy lifted the stick of Irish forward Colin Theisen at the red line. Theisen went down. Sheehy went to the penalty box for a hooking call that left Gophers coach Bob Motzko in a post-game rage. And the Irish made the most of their opportunity.

Notre Dame needed just 22 seconds of power play for a freshman named Michael Graham to pick off a puck behind the Gophers net, skate just a few feet over the goal line and rip a shot over the right shoulder of Minnesota goalie Mat Robson, ending the Gophers’ season and sending the Irish to a Big Ten title game they would win.

“They were really good that year and (the Gophers) were catching fire in the second half,” Graham recalled this week. “We kind of got a lucky call there at the end to put us on the power play, then I got lucky and was able to put one home. It was kind of special to knock them out my freshman year. I don’t know if it was a penalty, but we’ll definitely take it.”

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In his first 10 games versus the Minnesota Gophers, Eden Prairie native Michael Graham had one assist and one goal, which was the overtime winner in a 2019 Big Ten playoff game. Fighting Irish Media photo
In his first 10 games versus the Minnesota Gophers, Eden Prairie native Michael Graham had one assist and one goal, which was the overtime winner in a 2019 Big Ten playoff game. Fighting Irish Media photo

Success not surprising

It was a fitting capper to a stellar rookie year for Graham, who hails from Eden Prairie, Minn., and is now a junior. His goal to beat Robson and the Gophers gave him a dozen for the season, which tied for the team lead. He was named to the Big Ten’s all-freshman team and awarded the Irish rookie of the year honors.

For those who knew Graham on the high school rinks in Minnesota, the immediate success was not unexpected.

“Michael was a four-year standout for us,” said Eden Prairie head coach Lee Smith. “There are very few kids that we bring up from our (youth hockey) association as ninth-graders, but Michael had such incredible speed and hand skills, and he’s a good person and good player, we figured we had to bring him up. And we were very fortunate he decided to stay his senior year.”

After a state tournament trip as a junior captain for the Eagles, Graham started his senior year in Fargo, skating for the Force. His coach there, Cary Eades, strongly urged Graham to spend the entire season in the USHL.

But with future Division I players like Casey Mittelstadt (Minnesota), Nolan Sullivan (Nebraska Omaha), Nick Leivermann (Notre Dame), Hunter Johannes (American International) and Louie Roehl (Minnesota Duluth) on the Eagles roster, Graham returned home for one more crack at a state title. They ended up just a few goals short of that finish line, falling to Wayzata in the state title game.

“It was a fun year, and we almost won it, so it was worth it, for sure,” Graham said.

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Concussions and college choices

Originally committed to UMD, Graham had a change of heart during his first full USHL season and opened up his college window. He was contacted by Notre Dame coaches almost immediately and Graham made his first trip to South Bend amid the spectacle that is a Fighting Irish home football weekend.

Unfortunately, his other significant visit that year was from the injury bug. Graham battled an ankle ailment, which limited him to 31 games for the Force in the 2016-17 season.

It got worse the following season when he played, briefly, for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks. In his fourth game of 2017-18, Graham suffered a serious concussion and would not play again in juniors.

“Definitely a challenging year not being able to do much or skate much. At first, I couldn’t do anything. I could just go on walks and I’d get headaches if I did any more than that,” recalled Graham. “I started skating in February and I would still get headaches. Those finally stopped in late March or early April, and Notre Dame still wanted me to come in, which was good. It worked out that I was healed just in time for my freshman year of college.”

He missed time as a sophomore for the Irish with another concussion, as this time it was the Gophers beating Notre Dame in a best-of-three playoff series last March. After a dozen games this season, Graham has two goals, eight points and admits he needs to attack and shoot more. Coming back to his home state this weekend, to a building and an opponent he knows well, on a bigger ice sheet, seems like the perfect time.

“It’s always nice to play at Mariucci,” Graham said. “Growing up we’d always go to games there, so it’s still special to go back and play the Gophers.”

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