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'It’s kind of like the longest recruiting process in college hockey history': Zach Driscoll's final season brings him to UND, eight years after first visit

Last spring Zach Driscoll wasn’t sure about his hockey future. The pandemic limited options on turning pro, but he also wasn't set on returning to Bemidji State. So when he saw that North Dakota was looking for an experienced goaltender, it was a full circle opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

PHOTO: Zach Driscoll
UND senior goaltender Zach Driscoll at practice
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GRAND FORKS-- Sometimes it’s not about the length of the journey, but what’s waiting at the end of it.

Zach Driscoll’s first official visit to the Ralph was almost a decade ago.

“We kind of all laughed about it really. It’s kind of like the longest recruiting process in college hockey history. I have a picture from that game on the bench eight years ago, 2013. So I don’t know how many guys can say their recruiting process took eight years, but again I always say everything happens for a reason and this is where I’m supposed to be this year,” said Driscoll.

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Driscoll’s journey to becoming UND’s starting goaltender was anything but simple. His collegiate career began six years ago, 258 miles south of Grand Forks at St. Cloud States.

“I thought I was going to be there for the next four years. I actually played like 12 out of the first 14 games before Christmas break, then he took over the second half.”

Once the holiday break hit though, Driscoll lost his starting spot to Jeff Smith.

But then Driscoll lost his starting spot.

“Yeah, that was a tough year for me. Honestly, I just think I wasn’t quite ready yet to play college hockey. The NCHC is a really good league, so being a younger goaltender I kind of didn’t have a career of juniors under my belt where I was ‘the guy’ so to say.”

Since Driscoll still had eligibility remaining in the USHL, he decided to head back to Omaha following his freshman season.

“Being young, the one advantage I did have was I did have another year of junior hockey available to me. So in my end of the year meeting with Coach (Bob) Motzko, we sat down and talked and kind of with their plan with who they were bringing in, just thought it would be better for me to go back and develop and get those minutes, because minutes for goaltenders are everything to develop and grow your game,” said Driscoll.

“I was very fortunate to have that year of juniors. I think that year in Omaha really elevated my game as a goalie. So I think as hard as it was leaving college, I thought I was going to be there the next four years. So making that decision was really tough, but at the end of the day, I think it was the best decision I’ve made in my career so far,” he added.

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During his time in Omaha though, Zach was battling a knee injury and was still looking to be that ‘go to guy’ with the Lancers.

“I was at that point kind of hitting the panic button that I made a bad decision and I won’t get back to college because I’m not playing well, and now I'm hurt kind of thing. But just kind of took it one day at a time and recovered, got my knee better and started playing a little bit better, actually at the time a lot better hockey,” said Driscoll.

Even with his confidence shaken, Driscoll felt like he had unfinished business. Less than a year after returning to the USHL, Driscoll made the return to college hockey at Bemidji State. He even helped guide the Beavers to the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 11 years.

“Not what I expected, but again like I always say, everything happens for a reason. “It was nice to put the program back where we thought it should be,” said Driscoll.

But when the pandemic hit after Zach’s last collegiate season, his hockey future once again looked unclear.

“I didn't really have the opportunity that I felt that I was looking for after college. So I decided to give the college route another try to kind of continue to develop my body of work and kind of my resume that I have put together over the last five years now,” said Driscoll.

With the NCAA granting athletes an extra year of eligibility, the door was opened for Zach to look back at where his journey nearly began at the University of North Dakota.

When I found out about the transfer portal, I was kind of looking at the situation that North Dakota had here with (Adam) Scheel and Peter (Thome) there. When I found out Adam Scheel was signing, I thought there might be an opening and reached out to the coaches here and found out the feeling was mutual,” said Driscoll.

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“We needed an experienced guy to come in and when Zach Driscoll was on the portal, it didn’t take us long to reach out because we wanted him in our program. When he went into the transfer portal and wanted to play another year, that’s when we really said hey this is a guy that we would really want in our group, that comes to work hard everyday, and adds to the group here. So we’re very blessed that he chose us after he went through the portal,” said UND Head Coach, Brad Berry.

Berry was the same coach who wanted Zach to play for his program in 2013, eight years later he finally got his guy.

“I’m just glad and grateful that we ended up getting him even though it’s for one year. You know if we had the opportunity the first time around, we probably would have had him. But now that there is a definite opportunity, he wasn’t going to pass up on that chance,” said Berry.

“He permeates through our group here on positivity, making everybody else better around him in the locker room here. I think that’s an internal drive. It’s something that he was born with and that he exudes every single day. So for him to come into our locker room, he absolutely pushes the bar,” Berry added.

This season is Zach Driscoll’s last shot at college hockey. Now it’s time to finish his journey with a second chance in the NCHC.

“Yeah, definitely this is it,” Driscoll laughed.

“To come full circle like that and kind of be at the bottom of the roller coaster and at the top, it just kind of shows what staying with it and having a positive attitude can do. I had the opportunity to play in the NCHC before as a freshman, so it kind of felt like I had something to prove coming back into this league, kind of as an older, more mature guy. Give it a second round about and hopefully have a little bit more success this time,” said Driscoll.

Driscoll already has his master’s and is now working on CPA exams for accounting. UND opens NCHC play on Friday at home against Denver.

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