"You'll never get those years back, that time when it's just you, your teammates and the game. It's all business when you leave."
-- Jason Blake
Bring up North Dakota hockey to Maple Leafs forward Jason Blake
and watch his face light up. He'll drop whatever he's doing at that moment to talk. Forget the fact that his game has been struggling of late and on more than one occasion this season he's found himself in the press box as a healthy scratch. If you want to chat about his time in Grand Forks (1996-99), Blake is more than willing to travel to a period of his life he still cherishes dearly.
"Oh man, I haven't really sat and thought about that in too long," Blake said recently when asked to reminisce about his college career. "You're bringing tears of joy to my eyes here, yeah, let's talk about that. Man, that was a great time in my life."
As the Toronto equipment manager cleans the Leafs dressing room after a recent practice and screams "bus leaves in 20 minutes," Blake starts to take his equipment off as he utters: "He can wait. I love talking about my days with the Fighting Sioux."
And why wouldn't he? Blake made a name for himself when he played for former North Dakota coach Dean Blais and the team he dreamed of playing for as a child growing up in nearby Moorhead, Minn. In his three seasons with the Fighting Sioux, Blake had two 20-goal campaigns, but most importantly, he helped the team win the 1997 NCAA championship.
"I was a local kid, so that was a dream come true to play for North Dakota, but then to actually win the whole thing in my first year there, well, that was just amazing," Blake said. "I mean, every kid around there wants to play at North Dakota because that's all there really is there. So to actually play there and help them win it all was just so many dreams coming true, I can't even explain that feeling.
"Dean Blais was my head coach and it was funny because he was the assistant there when I was growing up and cheering them on. So then to play for him and wear the green and white was just amazing. What a thrill."
After scoring 74 goals in two seasons with Waterloo of the United States Hockey League, Blake went to Ferris State, but the fit wasn't there as his goals declined and he knew where he really wanted to be, so he transferred to North Dakota. He had to sit out the 1995-96 season due to NCAA transfer rules before putting on the uniform.
"That was hard that year I sat out because you just want to play, but it was probably one of the best decisions I ever made choosing to play for North Dakota," he said.
Blake knew what Blais expected from him, which was scoring goals, and that's just what he did, scoring 19 times in the 1996-97 championship season, 24 times in 1997-98 and 28 times in 1998-99.
"It's really incredible when I think about how everything just fell into place there," Blake said. "They brought me in to score goals, and I did. But we also won a national championship in my first season and we won three league titles while I was there. It just all came together perfectly, almost surreal."
Looking back on those North Dakota teams, Blake still believes the championship team wasn't the best team he played for there. But as he pointed out, that was even sweeter because that team was just a team that wouldn't be denied.
"I've always found it ironic that we won it that year," he said. "Statistically and on paper, the other two teams I played on were better. My senior season we only lost on the road once, to Wisconsin on a Friday night, I'll never forget that. We were No.1 the whole season.
"But as you learn in this game and all sports, the stats and all the regular-season stuff doesn't always matter. It's about coming together at the right time and just riding that wave of momentum. That's what happened in '97. It was such an amazing ride."
That ride almost was derailed because of the Red River Flood of 1997, a major flood that occurred in April and May 1997, along the Red River in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Southern Manitoba. It was the most severe flood of the river since 1826, and it stretched throughout the Red River Valley and affected the cities of Fargo and Winnipeg, but none greater than Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, where floodwaters reached more than 3 miles inland, inundating virtually everything in the twin communities.
According to Blake, the Red River Flood cut short the celebration of the Fighting Sioux victory, but nothing can ever take away the memories and accomplishments he and his teammates made that spring.
"We had our celebration cut short because of the flood, schools closed and we never really got the celebration we deserved," he said. "But we still won it. We beat a great Boston University team that had guys like Chris Drury
, Shawn Bates
and Tom Poti
. That didn't matter to us. We'll always have that between us and it was just a special, special time in our lives.”
Blake has been back to UND only twice since he graduated. He's run into teammates like Lee Goren
, who also went on to play in the NHL, but he still looks at his time at North Dakota as one of the best periods of his life. For that reason, he urges current college players to stay the course and finish their college careers.
"You know, everyone's situation is different and obviously the money is better now and hard to resist," he said. "But it's funny -- Zach Parise
, another North Dakota player, has the same agent as me. I remember when my agent told me Zach was thinking about leaving early, I urged him not to.
"You'll never get those years back. That time when it's just you, your teammates and the game. It's all business when you leave. Obviously Parise has done great at this level and I'm happy for him. But for others I always let them know that. Nothing can ever take that time away from me."