Three UND alums playing major roles in NHL Stanley Cup finals

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Three UND alums playing major roles in NHL Stanley Cup finals

No matter who wins the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup trophy this year, it will forever have the name of a former University of North Dakota player etched on its gleaming surface.

Three products of the UND hockey program – Matt Greene of the Los Angeles Kings and Zach Parise and Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils – are playing in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals in progress.

It comes as no surprise to those who coached, covered and interacted with the trio while they attended the University that they're playing at the highest level of professional hockey in front of an international audience.

"In large part, it's their will to improve, to get better and put in hard the work, day in and day out," said UND coach Dave Hakstol, who coached all three. "They're driven individuals, and that's why we're watching them on the stage they're on right now."

UND sports information director Jayson Hajdu recalled, "They were all such mature, focused, young men, and now here we are in 2012 with all three of them being not only world-class hockey players, but unquestioned leaders within their locker rooms. They're all terrific ambassadors for the University of North Dakota."

For Los Angeles, 6-3, 232 pound Greene is a defenseman and assistant captain. The 29-year-old native of Grand Ledge, Mich., spent three seasons at UND from 2002-2005. Known for his aggressive, physical play, he was Parise's roommate in Walsh Hall during their freshman season.

Greene’s Kings lead the best-of-seven series 3-1 and have a chance to skate the Stanley Cup in New Jersey on Saturday if they win game five. During Hakstol's first season as head coach, Greene captained an injury-depleted UND team that had faced adversity on and off the ice to the NCAA national championship game against Denver University, which the Pioneers won 4-1.

"Matt's doing the same things in LA that he did with us at UND," Hakstol said. "He brings that veteran leadership and veteran presence at the blue line. He knows his role and plays it to its highest level every game. Those are that things he did for us as our captain."

Former UND head coach Dean Blais, who now coaches at the University of Nebraska Omaha, recruited Greene and coached him his first two seasons in Grand Forks. Blais wanted his teams to play "on the edge, but not over the edge." However, Greene's penchant for taking penalties put him in the coach's doghouse.

Blais told the rookie defenseman that if he took a penalty in UND's next game against the Minnesota State Mavericks in Mankato, he should head straight to the locker room for the rest of the game. Sure enough, in the first period, Greene took a penalty and did exactly as his coach instructed.

"The referee said, 'Dean, you can't do that. You have to bring him back out here to serve his penalty,' Blais recalled. "Our trainer had to go into the locker room to get him."

"I never laughed so hard in my life," said Tim Hennessy, the longtime radio voice of Fighting Sioux hockey. "The refs were looking like 'What the hell's going on here? Don't you know where the penalty box is?' And Matt wasn't doing it to be funny."

All things considered, Greene was the type of player Blais valued.

"I'd rather have players like him that you have to tone down instead of players you have to motivate," he noted.

Among UND's players, Greene was known for his sense of humor, but the public rarely got to see it in action until he returned to Grand Forks in 2010 and shot an episode of "Brad Miller Time," a weekly player-produced video that became an Internet sensation.

Greene pretended to take UND freshman defenseman Andrew MacWilliam under his wing and provide "helpful" advice. It included changing his nickname from "Andy" to "Animal," pretending to stretch while checking out where the cameras were located in the arena and "crushing rampant amounts of water" so that MacWilliam's hair would be slicked down with sweat when his helmet came off.

"There really wasn't a plan and nothing was scripted," said MacWilliam, who will be a senior at UND next season. "Greene just took it away.

"When the video came out," he continued, "I was better known for being in it than I was for playing hockey. Everybody back home kind of busted my chops."

Although the veteran NHL player never did get around to giving the rookie any real useful advice, MacWilliam looks at Greene as the type of player he hopes to become.

"If there's any guy who's been through the program that I can model my game after, it's Matt Greene," MacWilliam explained. "If I could be anywhere close to him, it'd be a great accomplishment."

The Devils have two former UND players: Parise, a forward and team captain, and Zajac, who plays center with Parise on the Devils' top line.

Parise, 27, a Minneapolis native and son of NHL great J.P. Parise, played at UND for two seasons from 2002-2004. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award his last year, the trophy presented to the best player in college hockey. As a freshman, he burst on to the college scene by scoring eight goals in his first four games.

Virg Foss, who covered Sioux hockey for the Grand Forks Herald for 36 years and continues to write for UND athletics, remembered the controversy caused when Parise committed to UND rather than the University of Minnesota in his home state.

"There's no question that Parise coming to North Dakota changed the perception of the program, and it really shook up Minnesota hockey," said Foss, who recalled how Gopher supporters launched an effort to get Parise to change his mind. "He's a kid who's loyal and true to what he says. Once he made a commitment, he stuck to it."

Hennessy credits Parise's strong, outstanding play as one of the primary reasons the NCAA required college hockey officials to crack down on obstruction by calling hooking and holding when it occurred. He quotes one league official who referred to it as "the Parise rule."

In 2004 following a league game in which Parise was held off the score sheet just after helping the United States win a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Finland, a frustrated Blais rhetorically asked, "How does Zach Parise go over there and be the MVP of the world championship and come back here and be totally nullified?"

"Parise forced them to change the rules because they just weren't fair," Hennessy said. "Look at his numbers in college (49 goals and 67 assists in two seasons). His numbers would have been easily doubled if they had called the game then the way they do now."

One aspect of Parise's character on which all who know him agree is that he was the same person when he came to UND as he was when he left, and he remains unchanged today.

"There was never any air of overconfidence," Hennnessy said.

"Parise was polished and ready when he came to UND," Foss said. "I didn't see much change in him. Talking to Zach was like talking to a 30-year-old captain of a hockey team who was worldly and knew what was going on."

Former UND sports information director Dan Benson, now director of media relations at Minnesota State, noted how he found out half way through the 2002-2003 season that as an officer in the Army Reserve, he was going to be deployed for duty in Iraq.

"The team was on the ice for a practice, and I briefly spoke to the players to let them know I would not be able to finish out that season," Benson said. "Afterward, Zach took the time after to skate over to the bench and personally wish me well, and I thought it was a classy gesture."

Hajdu was once in a Grand Forks establishment not knowing that Parise was also there. A server showed up at his party's table with a round of drinks bought by the former UND star. Wanting to return the favor, Hajdu inquired about what Parise was drinking.

"Coke," was the reply.

"It was so All-America-apple-pie I didn't know whether to laugh or hug him," Hajdu said. "That's the thing with Zach; he arrived at UND humble, he left UND humble, and he's stayed humble all the while in between."

"Zach's a unique person, a great person," Hakstol said. "He's the kind of player you can watch for one shift on the ice and he'll stand out. He brings a high level of skill and competitiveness every time he's on the ice. Those are the things indicative of a guy who's spent many hours on the ice by himself working on the little things to improve his game."

Zajac, 27, from Winnipeg, spent two seasons at the University from 2004-2005. Although never as flashy as Parise or as physically intimidating as Greene, Zajac left college hockey and stepped right into the starting lineup with the Devils as a No. 1 draft pick. A center at UND, he developed a reputation for playing as well defensively and he did offensively.

"Travis is the consummate professional hockey player," Hakstol said. "When he was a freshman here, it gave him a good chance to develop the roles he's now playing in the NHL. He's become a premier two-way centerman in the NHL, and he's done it in a short time.

"He's gifted in terms of hockey sense and in the strength and the quickness of his hands," Hakstol continued. "It's a puck possession game, a game of intelligence and hockey sense. Travis is very strong in those areas."

Early on, Hennessy recognized a trait in Zajac that many of UND's future professional players shared.

"They have a presence and a calmness on the ice; they're not always running around at 100 miles per hour," he explained. "They know what they're doing and they can do it at any level. They don't get frustrated and they don't get rattled."

He said former UND player and current Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathon Toews displays the same demeanor.

"You could look at Travis and tell he was going to be a pro," Hennessy said of Zajac. "You knew he was going to be a better professional hockey than he was a college player. He's a player who does everything well."

Although 11 other former UND alums have played in the Stanley Cup finals, there's been only one time when more than three have been involved. That was in 1999 when Goalie Ed Belfour, defenseman Craig Ludwig and forward Tony Hrkac were with the Dallas Stars while forward Dixon Ward was with the Buffalo Sabres. The Stars won the NHL championship and Belfour brought the Stanley Cup to Grand Forks that summer for a raucous public celebration in the Hyslop Sports Center.

The only other time that three UND alums played in the NHL finals came in 1991 when Doug Smail, Perry Berezan and Jon Casey suited up for the Minnesota North Stars against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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