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North to the Future

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Nikolas Koberstein is proud to call Alaska his collegiate hockey home.

One of eight freshmen currently plying their trade at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the 20-year-old defenseman – who was drafted 125th overall by the Canadiens in 2014 – has spent the last six months learning the NCAA game under the watchful eye of veteran bench boss, Dallas Ferguson, while growing accustomed to life nearly 3,000 kilometers from his family’s ranch – a cow-calf operation – in Alberta.

Photo Credit: Todd Paris

“It’s definitely very unique up here. There are lots of different things to get used to, the temperature and the snow, but Fairbanks is a beautiful town. There are a little over 30,000 people in the city, and 100,000 outside of it. It’s a fairly small community, but it’s just so closely knit together. The people are great,” said Koberstein, who grew up in Barrhead, a town of just 4,000 people located about 120 kilometers northwest of Edmonton. “Living up here with my teammates has been a good experience, too. We’re always together – at practice, in the gym, in class, traveling. It forms a good bond. You really get close because of it. It’s been special.”

On the ice, Koberstein has patrolled the Nanooks’ blue line for 23 games during the 2015-16 campaign, doing his very best to meet the unavoidable hurdles that come with making the jump from the Junior ranks to a highly-competitive league like the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). If anything, it’s been an important learning experience for the former AJHL and USHL standout, who has accepted the challenge head on.

“It was a little bit interesting to start with. There was some learning to do because it’s definitely a different game. You’re playing against bigger, stronger and faster guys – going from Junior to playing against guys who could be 24 or 25 years old. The strength and quickness of the game is a lot higher, so it’s a very good league for development,” said the 6-foot-2, 195-pound rearguard, a business administration major, who notched his first career collegiate tally back on Jan. 2 in a two-point effort against Bemidji State. “There aren’t as many games [as in Junior]. We play on Friday and Saturday nights, so we can really focus on pushing ourselves during practice and workouts all week long.”

Koberstein has placed a strong emphasis on improving his skating ability this season – and with good reason. The Nanooks’ play their home games at the Carlson Center on an Olympic-sized rink, so being able to cover as much ice as possible – as quickly as possible – is a key attribute for any defender competing in that type of environment.

“Skating is one of the most important things for me right now, especially at this higher pace. There’s the bigger ice. That’s one thing. Skating and decision-making also go hand-in-hand. If you’re decisive, but you’re not a good skater, it doesn’t matter how fast you make a decision to go ahead with a play,” explained Koberstein. “I’m also working on staying aggressive and avoiding being hesitant. I was a little bit cautious coming into this new league playing against guys I wasn’t familiar with at all. I’ve felt more comfortable and confident every game, though. This season has been all about improvement and pushing myself. I want to come in as a sophomore and be an impact player.”

Photo Credit: Paul McCarthy

Ferguson has played a key role in Koberstein feeling right at home in the Alaskan Interior as the pair actually have a lot in common. In addition to being an Albertan, Ferguson also played at UAF and was a defenseman, too. It’s been easy for the Nanooks’ No. 5 to relate to his new bench boss since relocating to Fairbanks last summer.

“Dallas has been fantastic for me so far. He always focuses on improving his players and makes time for each one individually. That individual attention is fantastic. He also played pro hockey, so he knows what it takes to take your game to another level. Taking advice from him has been extremely beneficial and we really work well together,” praised Koberstein, who was sold on attending Alaska-Fairbanks following a visit with Ferguson back in Alberta. “He’s been in my shoes before. He’s been through the ropes like me and knows the course I’m on.”

It didn’t hurt Koberstein’s cause to embark on his collegiate career with some NHL experience in his back pocket, either. He’s attended the Canadiens’ development camps during the last two summers, which also boosted his confidence heading into a new chapter in his hockey life.

“You can really learn a lot if you pay close attention to the guys you’re around while you’re there, how they act, what they do. You learn from their habits. It’s important to take things away and incorporate them into your own game. Now, I have a lot of support from [director of player development] Martin Lapointe and [player development coach] Rob Ramage,” said Koberstein, who also benefitted from the support of another fellow Albertan while in Brossard this past summer. “Daniel Carr kind took me under his wing while I was there. He’s such an amazing guy. We played in the same league when I was there in Alberta, so we have that connection. He really taught me a lot.”

That being said, it hasn’t been the easiest of campaigns for the Nanooks, who are battling to secure a spot in the WCHA playoffs right now. With just six conference wins this season, Ferguson’s contingent currently sits ninth, two points back of Alaska Anchorage with two games remaining against their in-state rival to close out the year this coming weekend. The top eight clubs earn a coveted postseason berth.

Photo Credit: Paul McCarthy

“It’s been an extremely challenging year, but that can definitely make guys better in the long run. Adversity isn’t a bad thing. We’re all pulling towards the same goal. We’re all trying to improve and win as a team. It’s good that we’re all moving in the same direction together,” explained Koberstein. “Obviously, we haven’t had the results that we want. We’re still working on it. Right now, we’re staying positive and focusing on making that final playoff push.”

As for Koberstein himself, the plan going forward is simple.

“I just want to keep getting better. I want to finish the year with a bang and make sure I’m just doing things the right way,” said Koberstein, who lists Brent Seabrook, Johnny Boychuk and Chris Pronger among his NHL role models over the years. “I want to get closer to what the Nanooks – and the Canadiens down the road – need me to be. I’m always trying to take another step forward.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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