On November 29, 2013, the University of North Dakota hockey team lost 5-2 to the Saint Lawrence Saints. The UND hockey team was struggling, and had just finished 10-game stretch with a 2-7-1 record. It was UND’s worst 10-game stretch under head coach Dave Hakstol.
That late November loss left the UND hockey team with a 4-7-1 record, and they were going nowhere fast.
After the 5-2 shellacking, the coaches and players didn’t like what they saw. The leaders on the team held a closed door “players’ only” meeting. During this meeting, the players aired their differences. Alternate captain Stephane Pattyn was asked what was said during “players-only” meeting after the St. Lawrence series.
“Kind of just an open floor,” Pattyn said. “Everyone talked and gave their thoughts about what we needed to do. We had some great conversations. We definitely grew up as a team last night and I think today’s (win) helped too.”
After the meeting in question UND went on to win the second game of their non-conference series against SLU 3-2. Since the meeting, UND has been smoking hot, and they’re currently on an impressive 15-3-2 run.
Because of the surge, UND has vaulted to ninth in the Pairwise Rankings, and is poised to make another NCAA tournament appearance.
“We had a rough start, obviously, towards the end of November where we were kind of figuring what our identity would be, and what our team was made of,” Pattyn said. “Since then, we’ve kind of put it together. In the last little while, we’ve really seen that. We’ve come to expect us to be in this position. We’re where we want to be.”
UND players talk about the closed door meeting
I asked Pattyn about the closed door meeting and if that meeting helped turned the season around.
“I think it was just about being accountable,” Pattyn said. “Every guy in that room knowing their role – playing that role – everyone was being predictable. In hockey, that’s a big thing, knowing what’s happening and what your teammates are doing, so you kind of work off that. That’s the big thing that our team has changed and built from since then.”
“It’s kind of been the case every year that I have been here, where it takes us to reach rock bottom before we are able to pull together,” junior defenseman Nick Mattson said. “I wish I had some magic explanation for that every year.”
After the loss to St. Lawrence, UND senior captain Dillon Simpson was one of that players that met with the media after the game. At the time, Simpson didn’t want to talk about the closed door meeting. Maybe three months make a difference?
“I think that was more of an accountability meeting,” Simpson said. “Guys buying in and guys understanding where we’re at. At that time we had kind of dug ourselves a hole that no one was giving anything to us easy. We had to dig ourselves out.”
“I think that was kind of the point where we finally put our foot down and said ‘it’s now or never’. I think that guys did a good job understanding personally where they were as a team, and where we needed to go from there.”
Taking a week-to-week approach
Most of the season, head coach Dave Hakstol has talked about taking a game-to-game approach and not getting ahead of themselves. You don’t think about Saturday’s game until you deal with Friday’s game.
That approach has seemed to work.
After the team started the season 4-7-2, UND was buried at the bottom of the NCHC standings. Obviously, they couldn’t get out of that hole in one game, or after one weekend. They had to dig themselves out of that hole. The UND coaching staff took a game-to-game approach. That approach has proved to be a winning combination. Once the team found their identity, UND started winning hockey games. Then came the series sweeps.
With their impressive streak, UND finds itself tied with Saint Cloud State at the top of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings, with one weekend to go.
“We really take it week-to-week,” Hakstol said. “I think we’ve played really well. We’ve battled really hard. There’s a challenging weekend in front of us, with the last weekend of the season. There’s an awful lot on the line. You wouldn’t want it any other way. We’ll keep working hard. We’ll keep pushing forward and we’re excited to play this weekend.”
This weekend, the regular season ends. You can bet that the UND hockey team won’t get ahead of themselves. They know what’s on the line. The approach is simple. Win on Friday, and then move forward to Saturday. This weekend, if the UND hockey team can win a couple of games against Western Michigan, a conference title awaits them.
Eric is a 1996, 1999 graduate of the University of North Dakota. Eric covers the University of North Dakota Hockey and Division I college hockey. Eric is the Contributing Editor for Inside Hockey.