GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Connor Gaarder was on his way to a career in NCAA Division III hockey when he accepted a last-minute invitation to walk on at the University of North Dakota.
Senior captain Dillon Simpson recalls Gaarder "absolutely dying" when coach Dave Hakstol put the players through a grueling conditioning test on the first day of practice. But he finished, Hakstol said, and endeared himself to his teammates in the process.
"It was what he did when he hit that wall," Hakstol said. "He just kept going."
The junior from Edina, Minn., has developed into North Dakota's workhorse. He has played in all 41 games this season and chipped in several key goals, including his double-overtime game-winner against Ferris State 10 days ago that lifted the team into the Frozen Four tournament.
North Dakota will open against long-time rivals Minnesota on Thursday.
Junior Stephane Pattyn, like Gaarder a rare walk-on at one of the top programs in the country, said Gaarder never gets cheated when he takes the ice.
"He'll work hard every shift," Pattyn said. "He's going to give you an honest effort. He's just a junkyard dog."
Gaarder (pronounced GORE'-dur) went the first 11 games this season without a point before notching eight goals and eight assists in the next 30 games. That has vaulted him to 11th on the team in scoring. North Dakota is 10-1-1 over the last three years when Gaarder has scored a goal.
While Gaarder usually keeps his postgame comments short and appears uncomfortable talking about his own game, teammate Mark MacMillan said that shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of leadership. Quite the opposite, he said.
"He brings a lot to the room that probably a lot of people don't see," MacMillan said. "Connor is the type of guy that everyone wants on their team. He's willing to do whatever it takes."
Gaarder was part of a high-powered line at Edina, one of the top high school programs in Minnesota. Anders Lee moved on to the United States Hockey League, then to Notre Dame, and now the New York Islanders. Marshall Everson went directly from high school to Harvard and spent this past season with the Gwinnett Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League.
Gaarder could not land a spot in the USHL, one of the top development leagues for college hockey, and wound up playing two seasons in the North American Hockey League. Everson, who played alongside Gaarder for a decade, said he expected Gaarder to have a "ton of offers" from D-I schools.
"In my opinion he was one of the most complete players in the state," Everson said. "It never really made sense to me. I really think for a long time he was overlooked by a lot of teams and a lot of coaches. I thought it was a mistake the whole time."
Gaarder had resigned himself to small college hockey when first-round NHL pick J.T. Miller elected to sign with the New York Rangers instead of coming to North Dakota. Assistant coach Dane Jackson recommended Gaarder after watching him play in the NAHL playoffs.
While it's believed that most Minnesota-born hockey players grow up wanting to play for the Gophers, who are the No. 1 seed in this year's Frozen Four, Gaarder said he never considered it an option.
"It was never a big thing for me to go to Minnesota," he said. "I'm real excited about the game. There's that extra oomph that both teams are going to bring on Thursday."
Everson, who calls Gaarder "the hardest player to play against I've ever seen" because of his combination of fearlessness and skill, is one Minnesota native who will be backing North Dakota against the Gophers.
"It's going to be weird rooting against Minnesota," Everson said. "Connor is the last teammate I have left in college. I will be in his corner."