As North Dakota worked its way through the NCAA Midwest Regional last weekend, UND fans around the world paid attention. Some traveled to U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, many watched the games on ESPNU, and still others followed the results via live chat, fan forums, and social media.
It quickly became apparent that many of those fans keeping track of the boys from Grand Forks had worn the green and white themselves.
I’m not suggesting that this phenomenon of former players taking pride in their alma mater is unique, but the level of involvement and connection seems like something special.
Within minutes of Conner Gaarder’s double overtime game winner over Ferris State, T.J. Oshie (UND 2005-08) sent this tweet to the team:
TJ Oshie @OSH74 • Mar 29
Congrats to the @UNDMHockey on their win tonight! Good luck in the #FrozenFour boyyyyys!!! #Sioux #RollTribe
Joe Gleason (UND 2009-13) was following the regional final with former teammates Derek Forbort (UND 2010-13) and Andrew MacWilliam (UND 2009-13). In a moment of Edina pride, Gleason assured the others (follow this link for a screenshot) that Gaarder, a former Hornet himself, would come through in the clutch.
Gleason has split time this season between the Rockford IceHogs (AHL) and the Toledo Walleye (ECHL), and I asked him why it was important for him to keep up with North Dakota hockey. Here’s what he told me:
@DBergerHockey we care more about that program than anything else. We talk every weekend but never about each other, just how the Sioux did. My mom doesn’t even watch my games anymore, she watches North Dakota and emails with my classmates’ parents!
Former Hobey Baker winner Ryan Duncan (UND 2005-09) is over in Germany, playing for Munich EHC after two stints with Salzburg EC (Austria) and a season with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League. In response to my request for a quote, he tweeted:
@DBergerHockey I check Brad Schlossman’s blog every day, watch highlights of every game. Stayed up till 5am in Europe this past weekend. watching the games while texting with former teammates. I’m a fan. Can’t get enough of Sioux hockey
I didn’t give him a hard time for reading Schlossman’s blog and not mine.
It’s interesting to note that not only is social media allowing former players to stay connected to UND and to each other, it also allowed me to check in with them and write this story.
It probably comes as no surprise that players from every generation continue to follow the University of North Dakota hockey program. Jeff Ulmer, who played for Dean Blais from 1995-1999 and has fashioned himself a fifteen year professional hockey career, had some unique perspective and sees some similarities between UND’s 1997 championship team and this year’s squad:
Congrats @UNDMHockey ! We weren’t given the easy route in ’97 either. Plenty of proud alumni behind you guys. #SiouxProud #FrozenFour
I caught up with Mitch Vig (UND 1994-98) the old fashioned way – by telephone. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions and visit about following the team. We talked about how things were so different when he signed. Twenty years ago, information was hard to come by. The former captain said, “I was down in Dubuque when I signed with the team, and we could find some stuff on the internet, but not like it is now. Once in a while I’d look at the Minneapolis paper and see what the WCHA teams were doing.”
And now that his hockey career is over, he says, things are different. “With all of the apps and the advent of social media, there are so many more sources of information. I get a lot of my news from Twitter and the College Hockey app right on my phone. Whenever I want to know, I can pull something right up.”
When talking about what it means to be a part of the University of North Dakota hockey program, Mitch Vig spoke about how the current team’s success is meaningful for him. “I always feel a large sense of pride. It’s not a unique situation, but there’s something special at North Dakota. You feel like part of a program, the fans, the guys, you’re part of a family and part of a program. You still, with social media and everything else, you feel a connection to some of the current players even though you don’t really know them. They’re a part of the family and a part of the program, too.”
I asked him what he thought another national title would mean for UND. He said, “It would mean a ton to get that eighth one. You don’t try to compare yourself to other schools, but that’s one way that people talk about teams, they measure them by national championships. We’re already one of the premiere programs, and getting closer to Michigan’s nine (titles) and putting one more up on all the other schools is very important.”
We talked about how, with the schools changing leagues, there wasn’t supposed to be a “Sioux/Gopher” game this season. He remarked, “I’m excited to watch how it all plays out. With the conference realignment, the first year that UND and Minnesota weren’t scheduled to play, that this is how it all worked out, that these two teams with this great rivalry get to meet with a chance to go to the national title game.”
At the end, I asked Mitch Vig whether he would be in Philadelphia for the Frozen Four, and he was still trying to get everything worked out. He told his friend that if they go, he might need some help learning what to do as a fan. Vig said, “I’ve been to one of these, but not in the stands, so I need to get filled in.”
It looks to me like Mitch Vig, like so many other former Sioux greats, already has it figured out. They have become such an important part of a fan base that makes the North Dakota family unique in college hockey.