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Undrafted college grads stick together to keep NHL dreams alive

WCHA veterans Knutson, McLain, Fitzgerald, Auk doing what they can to overcome odds, extend hockey careers

by Dan Myers @DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- For most hockey players, the routine of a typical offseason is incredibly predictable.

Most NHL guys wrap up their seasons in April or May, then take a few weeks off before slowly working their way back into shape. First, it's time in the gym. Then it's back on the ice. By the time September rolls around and training camps are on the horizon, they're back in pristine shape and ready to go.

The timeline is much the same for college or junior players. Seasons end and offseasons begin; weight room, on-ice, maybe a few summer classes at school and a return to normalcy come September. 

But what about those guys stuck in the middle?

At Minnesota's development camp earlier this month were several players who wrapped up their college careers last spring but are now trying to latch on somewhere to continue their dreams of one day reaching the National Hockey League.

Among them: Zeb Knutson, Mitch McLain, Gerry Fitzgerald and Mark Auk.

All completed their college eligibility at WCHA schools; Knutson at Minnesota State, McLain at Bowling Green, Fitzgerald at Bemidji State and Auk at Michigan Tech.

For the past four years, they have been competing directly against each other for MacNaughton Cups and Broadmoor Trophies. 

Now they're competing for perhaps only a spot or two with the Iowa Wild. Nothing is promised there either, nor are any of their hockey careers past development camp. 

None were drafted, which means they'll have to continue their careers by outworking and outperforming players teams have invested time and equity into.

"It's definitely something new," said McLain, a Brainerd native. "I've never had to not know where I was going to play the next year. I'm just trying to take it day-by-day and get better."

All four of the undrafted collegians at Wild camp are on the older side; Auk is 23, while Knutson, McLain and Fitzgerald are all 24. 

To put that in perspective, Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin has played six seasons in the NHL. He just turned 25 earlier this month. 

That's not to say none of the four players will ever make it to the NHL. According to College Hockey Inc., 71 percent of all college alums playing in the NHL last season played at least three years of college hockey. In all, college hockey produced 74 undrafted NHLers last season alone, a total which represented half of all undrafted players in the League.

But they've had to work for every opportunity they've ever received. They are, in the classic sense of the term, a true "late bloomer."

"I've never been drafted in any league, and I've made it every step of the way," said Auk, the lone defenseman of the group. "So I feel like if I keep doing what I do, hopefully it works out. But I don't feel like there's any extra pressure to work harder than I do because I'm already trying to work my hardest every day. 

"But it's a little fuel for the fire."

Knutson's rise has been possibly the most impressive of all. 

Perhaps the best hockey player to ever come from the state of South Dakota, the Sioux Falls native played two seasons of junior hockey with his hometown Stampede in the USHL. 

Knutson appeared in just nine games as a freshman in Mankato and some wondered whether he'd ever become the impact player he was at the junior level. But he continued to work, playing in all 39 games as a sophomore and junior and 40 as a senior.

His last two seasons with the Mavericks, Knutson scored 15 goals apiece and added 28 assists for 43 points during his final campaign in south central Minnesota. 

Just three years after struggling to crack the lineup, Knutson was named an All-WCHA player and went on to earn a pro contract, playing two games with Milwaukee Admirals -- at the time overseen by Wild General Manager Paul Fenton -- at the tail end of last season.

"I think it's about proving yourself, and opportunities like [development camp] are what you need," Knutson said. "When you're not drafted, there is no guarantee you're going to make a camp like this where you can get seen. To be invited to this is a big step in the right direction, and when you're here, you have to work hard and do what you can to show everybody what you're about."

Fitzgerald embarked on his own path for the first time after finishing his career with the Beavers, a college experience he shared with his twin brothers, Leo and Myles.

The triplets each played four years with Bemidji State before going their separate ways last spring; Leo played three games in the ECHL and will play this upcoming season overseas with Myles, who did not play anywhere at the end of last season.

Gerry was solid in 16 games with Iowa, scoring four goals, eight points and posting a plus-3.

"This [was] my first development camp, and it was a good experience," Gerry said. "I know I wasn't drafted, and I know I'm pretty old, but I'm just trying to have fun and play my game and learn some new things, take some stuff from the coaches."

Wild Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir commented in the camp's aftermath about how impressed he was with how tight-knit the players from all walks became early in the week.

And even though they may be in direct competition, Knutson, McLain, Fitzgerald and Auk all seemed to gravitate toward each other as the week went on.

It just seemed natural.

"Us WCHA guys, we all have something in common, playing four years and battling against each other," McLain said. "It was nice to be their teammates for once and try to learn some things from them. I've watched these guys for years, and they're the best players in the league.

"We're all trying to get to the same spot, so it was cool to lean on those guys and develop those friendships. There's definitely a comfort level when you come back to things like this and you're all together."

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Video: Bombardir and Fenton recap Development Camp

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