Oilers alumni come up short in bid for NCAA title
Hockey: North Dakota falls to Michigan in Frozen Four
Wednesday, Apr 20, 2011 12:53 pm
While Okotoks was ousted from the Alberta Junior Hockey League season, some Okotoks Oiler alumni were still chasing their dreams in the NCAA’s Frozen Four collegiate national championship with the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota.
Former Okotoks stars Corban Knight, Derek Rodwell and Brad Eidsness fell just short of their championship dreams on April 7 when their Fighting Sioux fell to the Michigan Wolverines 2-0 in the semifinals.
“Overall, it was a disappointing end to a great season,” said Knight, who played in Okotoks in 2008-2009.
The top-ranked University of North Dakota was ultimately done in by the standout goaltending of Michigan’s Shawn Hunwick who made 40 saves in the victory.
“On paper, we were probably the best team in the country,” Knight added. “Their goalie just had the game of his life.”
Former Oiler goaltender and Alberta Junior Hockey League MVP Brad Eidsness said he believed the Fighting Sioux were poised to hoist the championship trophy.
“We thought certainly we had all the pieces in place to maybe go out and get a national championship,” he said.
Rodwell said while losing in the semifinal may be tough to swallow, the one-game elimination nature of the Frozen Four is ultimately part of what makes it unique.
“It’s part of the NCAAs; it’s part of what makes it exciting,” he said.
Eidsness said he wasn’t as enthusiastic about the nature of the Frozen Four.
“The one and done situation is very unique,” he said. “It’s not something necessarily we all love.”
Playing on college hockey’s biggest stage was a long time coming for the Alberta natives.
With the Sioux averaging close to 12,000 fans per game, the North Dakota players were already accustomed to playing in front of a professional-type atmosphere.
“In the Midwest, college hockey is probably just as big, if not bigger, than college basketball,” said Knight, who is in his second season with the Fighting Sioux.
That said, nothing could prepare them for the media circus and hype machine that was the Frozen Four.
Being interviewed by ESPN’s Barry Melrose was a particular highlight for Knight.
In his first trip to the Frozen Four, Rodwell said he was amazed by the North Dakota fans who travelled to the game in St. Paul.
While all three players played a prominent role on the Fighting Sioux’s run to the Frozen Four they still have a keen appreciation for their roots.
Knight played only one season in Okotoks but it was productive.
The native of High River scored 34 goals and 38 assists in 61 games in the 2008-2009 season and was named AJHL Rookie of the Year.
“That was a pretty crucial step in my hockey career,” Knight said. “Without that team I probably wouldn’t have been able to get a scholarship to North Dakota. I owe a lot to the Okotoks organization.”
Rodwell suited up for three seasons in Okotoks and improved in every campaign.
The Taber product scored 18 goals in 2009-2010, his final season with the Oilers.
Without the support of the Okotoks program, Rodwell said he would never have been able to earn a scholarship.
Perhaps one of the most prolific Oilers of all time, Eidsness left quite a legacy in Okotoks.
He played three years in Okotoks and he was the first, and only, Oiler to claim an AJHL MVP award for his play in the 2007-2008 season.
The Chestermere native won 21 games with a 2.28 goals against average and a .930 save percentage to earn the distinction.
Eidsness managed to parlay his success at the Junior A level into a starting job at North Dakota in 2008.
“I had a great experience in Okotoks,” Eidsness said. “Being relied on really helped me coming to the next level.”
Part of the appeal of playing for the Fighting Sioux, the players added, was the chance to play alongside some of their former teammates.
“It was nice coming in knowing those guys and having that connection,” said Knight. “It’s very similar to Okotoks, the community here.”
“We liked to have lots of Alberta boys around, we kind of give the Minnesota kids a hard time,” Eidsness laughed.
After being such a huge part of the Oilers program, Eidsness said he still follows his former team’s exploits.
“I certainly keep up with what’s going on,” he said. “It looks like they’re developing a pretty strong program year-in and year-out. Hopefully, one of these years they can get over the hump and make the final round.”
While the loss in St. Paul was disappointing to the former Oilers, the ending did little to diminish what was a great season for the players and the program.
The Sioux finished with a 32-9-3 record – in large part due to the Okotoks contingent.
Heading into his sophomore season, Knight was expected to carry a bit more of the load offensively for North Dakota. The fifth round draft pick of the Florida Panthers did just that, finishing with 44 points in 44 games.
While the offensive dynamo plans to return for his Junior season in North Dakota, the allure of the National Hockey League is something that is always on his mind.
Fortunately, Knight’s parents have managed to keep him focused on the task at hand – finishing school and winning a national championship.
“(The loss to Michigan) leaves an unsettling feeling in your stomach that you want to come back and take another shot.”
Rodwell’s freshman season was successful as well.
The fifth round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils scored five goals in his first NCAA season and learned some valuable lessons along the way.
Rodwell credited his summer of training in North Dakota for preparing him for the rigors of college hockey.
“I was training and skating with a lot of the guys. That helped me minimize the (adjustment) stage,” he said.
The former Oiler is eager to play out his four years in North Dakota before making an attempt to turn pro.
“I think just being in a program like this, they do such a great job on focusing on the now,” Rodwell said. “I’m not so much focused on the future.”
For Eidsness, the 2010-2011 campaign was a bit more difficult.
After carrying the load in his first two years with the program, the Buffalo Sabres draft pick was largely relegated to back-up duties behind rookie phenom Aaron Dell, formerly of the Calgary Canucks.
Eidsness played in 41 games in each of his first two seasons with North Dakota but only managed to get into eight games this year.
“It was a really frustrating year,” he said.
With a hockey resumé as impressive as it is lengthy, Eidsness faces an offseason of questions as to whether he should return for his fourth year of eligibility.
“I’m going to make a decision that’s best for my hockey career,” he said, candidly. “At this point, I don’t really know what that is.”
Regardless of what happens, the former Okotoks star said this season has taught him a lot about himself and the importance of preparation.
Playing sparingly forced Eidsness to ramp up the intensity in practices and develop habits he insisted will help as he advances further in his hockey journey.
“I’m definitely a changed player,” he said. “Maybe that will help me moving forward.”