Roseau's Nick Oliver and Grafton's Chad Demers are guiding the Fargo Force to their best season
The two coaches were on Fargo's inaugural team 15 years ago. Now, they're behind the bench, trying to bring the franchise a second Clark Cup.
FARGO — Nick Oliver had a tough decision ahead of him.
He was coaching at his alma mater, St. Cloud State, and having success.
In his four years as an assistant, the Huskies had won two Penrose Cups as National Collegiate Hockey Conference champions and reached one NCAA national championship game.
But he had an offer to return to his junior hockey program, the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League, and become a head coach.
Oliver called one of his best friends, Chad Demers, to talk it through.
Oliver and Demers were on the original Fargo Force team together. They played there for three years in total, becoming close. They hung out at the rink. They spent plenty of time at each other's billet household.
Oliver got to know Demers' friends group from Grafton. Demers became friends with Oliver's buddies from Roseau. They stayed connected through college. Oliver was in Demers' wedding. Demers was in Oliver's wedding.
So, they lean on each other.
At the end of the conversation, Oliver had one more thing to add.
"You know," Oliver said, "if I take this job, I want you to come back with me."
"You know I'll be ready," Demers responded.
Oliver took the job. He hired Demers away from his director of hockey operations job at his alma mater, Air Force. And the duo have guided the Fargo Force to their best season in franchise history.
Fargo won the Anderson Cup for having the best regular-season record in the USHL. It's the first time Fargo has won it in its 15-year history.
On Thursday, the Force opened their best-of-five Western Conference Finals series with a 1-0 win over the Lincoln Stars in Fargo's Scheels Arena. The Force are just five wins away from their second Clark Cup as USHL playoff champions.
Fargo is attempting to be just the second USHL team in 10 years to win both the Anderson Cup and Clark Cup in the same season.
Fargo's previous best season was 2017-18, when it finished with 81 points and a .675 winning percentage in the regular season. That Force squad went on to win the Clark Cup under a coaching staff featuring Eades and Grand Forks natives Pierre-Paul Lamoureux and Eli Rosendahl.
This year, Fargo finished the regular season with 88 points and a .710 winning percentage under a staff that also includes goalie coach Carter Krier of East Grand Forks.
"Nick has done a really good job creating an atmosphere and an environment here where players want to be here," said Demers, the assistant head coach. "Players enjoy being here. The USHL is a really long season, so it's important that guys are excited to come to the rink every day. He's done a good job creating at atmosphere where it doesn't feel like we've been playing for nine months."
Oliver, who turns 31 on Thursday, said he sees the game in a similar way as Demers, 32.
"I think Chad's biggest strength is he understands people," Oliver said. "He understands how to lead. He was a captain as a player in both Fargo and at Air Force. Transitioning into coaching, he had a lot of success working with Pierre-Paul Lamoureux. His players know he cares about them and he loves them. That's a really important thing at any level, but especially junior hockey."
Challenges off the ice
In September 2018, Demers was diagnosed with Grade 4 Glioblastoma, the same brain cancer diagnosis as former U.S. Senator John McCain.
At the time, Demers had surgery to remove a tumor and started chemotherapy and radiation to try to keep the cancer in hibernation as long as possible.
But Demers had a scare this season.
On March 14, during a routine checkup, doctors found another brain tumor.
Demers had surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to remove it.
"It's just part of my life," Demers said of living with brain cancer. "I've gotten used to it. I knew this was going to happen eventually. Because of my routine checkups, they found it early and were able to get it out quickly. We've done this before. I made it four-and-a-half years. Now, we're just doing it again. Hopefully, I make it another four-and-a-half years or longer."
Three weeks after brain surgery, Demers was back handling his regular duties as an assistant coach for the Force. He is doing chemo now and will continue treatments through November.
"I've learned a lot from him and how he can take his current situation and get the most out of life," Oliver said. "He has the same demeanor and excitement every day. I know I've learned a lot from him. I know our players have learned a lot from him. He's been able to push through everything and be such a good coach, father and husband."
Making a run at Clark
Oliver and Demers are hoping to finish this year off with another trophy — the Clark Cup.
They've both been close to winning it before.
As players with Fargo, they lost in the Clark Cup Finals in 2009 and 2010. Demers also was an assistant on Fargo's 2021 team, which lost to Chicago in the Clark Cup Finals.
"When you're in the middle of a season, you don't pick your head up to think about it," Oliver said of the team's success. "You're living day to day, week to week. A couple weeks ago, we talked about how fortunate we've been to be able to work alongside each other and to have a great group of people and players. It's fun to see them have success.
"Once we get through the playoffs, we'll probably enjoy it a bit more. Right now, we're plugging away. But we'll both look back and be grateful for this group."
Clark Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Finals
Fargo vs. Lincoln
Game 1: Fargo 1, Lincoln 0.
Game 2: 7:05 p.m. Friday, Scheels Arena.
Game 3: 5:05 p.m. Sunday, Lincoln.
Game 4: 7:05 p.m. Monday, Lincoln (if necessary).
Game 5: 7:05 p.m., May 11, Scheels Arena (if necessary).