Grand Forks is a reasonably small town (about 55,000 people) on the eastern side of North Dakota. It sits along the Red River, which is good for one flood every year that ranges from slightly disconcerting to massive destruction. Grand Forks has the typical eating fares one would expect from a town of its size. The people are friendly, even to outsiders.
Home to the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks has firmly attached itself to the school and its athletic programs. It’s no different from other college towns like Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Madison or Iowa City. While those towns embrace football or basketball, Grand Forks loves its ice hockey – and not just as something to do on a Friday night. It’s the thing to do on a Friday night. Fans pack the Ralph Engelstad Arena, almost all of them clad in green, white or black, and loudly support their favorite team.
I would pass through the Forks about once a year as my family traveled north to visit my grandparents, so I knew that the town was strongly aligned with UND. It wasn’t until I arrived there as a freshman in college that I truly saw how much it did so. Love of hockey is ingrained in your mind quickly after you move in. When October rolls around and you attend your first game, you’re hooked from that point on.
My family joined the fanbase shortly after I did, then my relatives hopped on as well. It’s truly extraordinary how quickly it spread. Growing up, my family didn’t really follow hockey. Now they’re fully devoted. We used to always get together at the Final Five in St. Paul each March and now, the whole clan (minus me and my wife) gets together in the Forks for a series every year. It’s really uncanny how quickly the fandom spread in my family and how they’ve gotten their own friends to join as well.
So last Saturday night, I sat in a hotel room with my wife (a UND alum who I met watching the NCAA Regionals with some friends) and my family to watch the national championship game. Tensions were high as the Fighting Hawks attempted to win their first title in 16 years. That may not seem long to some. For Hawks fans, that’s an eternity. UND has seven national titles, the last in 2000, and it should have added to its collection several times since. Denver upset the Hawks in 2004 and won a rematch the next year. They then went on this bizarre streak of losing to Boston College three years in a row at the Frozen Four from 2006-08. In 2011, the FF was in St. Paul. With thousands of UND fans in attendance, the Hawks were stonewalled by Michigan in the semifinal. Heartbreak continued to befall the Hawks as they lost in the FF to archrival Minnesota on a fluky, buzzer-beating goal in 2014 and they were outgunned by Boston University in the 2015 semis.
I picked the Hawks to win it all last season, which is the first time I’ve done that. However, I wasn’t confident in my prediction. BU was stacked that year and UND had to play the Terriers in basically their own backyard. This year was different though. The Hawks looked good from the start of the season and after looking at the tournament pairings, I thought that this year could be the one. UND blew out Northeastern and easily handled the powerful Michigan offense in the Midwest Regional final. They then faced rival Denver in the FF semis. UND came out blazing and took a 2-0 lead into the third period. I’m not sure what happened in the period break, but it looked as if the Hawks packed it in early. Denver tied the game in the third, leading to panic attacks in both my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I can’t blame them for doing so; UND has made a habit of falling apart in the semis. In the end though, Nick Schmaltz scored off a rebound with less than a minute remaining and the Hawks added an empty netter to punch their ticket into the title game.
The Denver game was probably the most nerve-racking for Hawks fans. It’s the first time that UND looked mortal in the tournament and nobody likes to lose to their rival on a national stage. Weird as it sounds, some of my friends would rather lose in the title game than lose to Denver. Things worked out well for everyone, and the Hawks moved on to face Quinnipiac in the final.
The Bobcats had a fairly easy time disposing with BC in the other semifinal, which surprised me. I predicted QU to win, but the Eagles looked awful from the opening puck drop. If UND were going to end its streak, it would’ve been cool to knock off its one-time nemesis in the title game. On the other hand, QU was the more formidable opponent, so it’d be a better accomplishment to defeat the Bobcats.
So on Saturday, Hawks fans from all over the country gathered around TV screens, hoping their beloved squad would finally get it done. Even though I was watching the game, my mind was elsewhere. As a writer, I was already thinking about how I would format my column if Quinnipiac won the game. It’d be a fun one to write. The Bobcats have emerged as a national powerhouse in the last few years and they have an interesting storyline.
That story that I came up with went quickly by the wayside, though. The Hawks jumped out a 2-0 lead thanks to a crucial goaltending mistake. Last year, BU goalie Matt O’Connor had the puck slip out of his glove after making a save. The puck inadvertently went into the back of the net, tying the game. This year, Bobcats goalie Michael Garteig came way too far out of his net to clear a puck and ended up sending it right into the path of UND freshman Brock Boeser. Boeser then corralled it and put the puck into a wide-open net.
After Garteig’s gaffe, my first thought was that the game was over. When a goalie screws up in epic fashion like that, his team often doesn’t recover. UND did its best to help Quinnipiac get back on track by taking some stupid penalties toward the end of the first period, one of which led to a Bobcat goal. That was it, though. The Hawks fired three goals past Garteig in the third period and finally ended their 16-year drought in dominant fashion.
The championship victory was especially important to my wife. She was a member of the UND pep band and had to suffer through each heartbreaking loss the last few years, including the 2007 loss to BC in person in St. Louis. Saturday was also her 30th birthday, so her wish came true.
After the trophy had been presented, I visited Facebook. The response to the win was something to behold. Alumni and rabid fans posted photos of the UND players celebrating with their friends and families. Even people who weren’t hockey fans at all were decked out in gear and toasting the win with cheap beer (it’s hard to leave the college life behind). Even my own mom, not a sports fan by any means, ran around the hotel room high-fiving everyone. That’s what I’m going to remember about that game.
In the next few weeks, the thrill of the title will die down and by the time October comes around, fans will be flocking to forums to express their displeasure with how head coach Brad Berry has constructed his starting lineup. That’s how things work in Grand Forks: An intense demand for excellence makes losses much more crushing and wins much more satisfying.
Sigh. It was nice to be a part of that again.