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Wild's UMD connections reminisce on championship moments in hometown

Stalock, Brown and Swaney reflect on experiences as Bulldogs in Xcel Energy Center

by Dean Spiros / Special to

Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Minnesota Wild, will host the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's (NCHC) Frozen Faceoff championship tournament March 22-23, 2019. Leading up to the Frozen Faceoff, will feature different aspects of the NCHC related to the Wild and Xcel Energy Center. More information, including tickets, is available at the Xcel Energy Center's Frozen Faceoff page.

Wild goaltender Alex Stalock, 10 years removed from his playing days at Minnesota Duluth, said the Bulldogs' rise to prominence in recent years has helped make the alumni golf tournaments a whole lot more fun these days.

While a salute to the Bulldogs' national championships in 2011 and 2018 surely has been -- and will continue to be -- a highlight of the day, raising a glass to St. Paul and the Xcel Energy Center would seem to be in order as well.

Wild forward J.T. Brown certainly agrees. Brown was a freshman on the 2011 team that won the national championship at Xcel Energy Center. Ditto for Duluth sophomore forward Nick Swaney, a seventh-round pick by the Wild in the 2017 NHL draft, who was on last year's team that won the title in St. Paul.

The Twin Cities may be the home of the rival Minnesota Gophers, but the Bulldogs clearly have carved out a special place in St. Paul's illustrious hockey history. Looking ahead, they have set their sights on defending their national championship at the Frozen Four in Buffalo, N.Y., in April, and have been ranked among the country's best teams throughout the season. 

But first things first: A trip to their second-favorite arena for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff on March 22-23.

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Swaney, who is from Lakeville, is one of 10 players on UMD's current roster who are from the Twin Cities; 17 are from Minnesota. The Frozen Faceoff will give them a taste of what the Bulldogs experienced last April in the Capital City.

"It was pretty much like a home game for us," Swaney said. "We were getting ready for the national anthem, and the crowd starting chanting 'UMD.' I got chills with how loud that place got. It's a memory I'll have for the rest of my life. You play college hockey to try to win a national championship, and I was fortunate enough to do it in my freshman year. Doing it at the 'X' and in my hometown just added to it." 

Brown, who played high school hockey at Rosemount, was voted the Most Outstanding Player at the 2011 Frozen Four. He, too, will forever hold on to the memory of playing in front of so many supporters as his team captured college hockey's ultimate prize.

"We felt good about the fact that our fans would only have a short drive down the interstate to get there," Brown said. "And a lot of guys were from Minnesota, so we knew we would have a lot of friends and family there.

"We had a really good team that year, and a really good team the next year. So we said, 'Why can't we do it again?' We ended up losing in the regional finals. It put into perspective what we did the year before and exactly how hard the journey was."

Stalock, who left UMD after his junior season in 2009 to turn pro, was in town for the championship-winning game and joined the team for the after-party. And it all took place in his hometown of St. Paul. 

"A number of the guys on the team were guys I played with, so it was pretty special," the South St. Paul product said. "Looking back at those college days now, I remember how special those times were and how close we were as a group."

Stalock has some special memories of his own from playing at Xcel Energy Center as a member of the Bulldogs. UMD won the WCHA playoff championship in 2009 by winning the Final Five in St. Paul.  

"First there was the [high school] state tournament and then the Final Five," Stalock said. "It was one big party on West 7th."

Today, Stalock and Brown are thankful for the opportunity to play for the Wild after beginning their NHL careers elsewhere. Growing up, the goal was to make it to the NHL, and it wasn't until that dream was realized that they could give serious thought to one day playing for the Wild.

"It's something that was in the back of my mind," Brown said. "To be able to be close to family, especially now that I have kids."

Swaney, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound winger who led UMD in the regular season with 13 goals, said he will continue to do everything in his power to reward the Wild for the confidence they showed in him. 

"It's hard to put into words how special that was," Swaney said of receiving the call from the Wild. "That was the third year I had been eligible for the draft, and I didn't know going in what would happen. To be drafted was a thrill, and to have it be by my hometown team made it that much more special."

Swaney attended the Wild's development camp the past two summers. He is scheduled to do the same this offseason, with the possibility of playing for the Wild becoming more tangible each year.

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"It's something pretty cool to think about," Swaney said, "but at the same time, you have to take it day by day and focus where you are."

Where Stalock, Brown and Swaney are is in the State of Hockey, making an impact in their own backyard. 
"Sometimes when I step out on the ice at Xcel," Brown said, "I think about how it's the same place where I have all those great memories of winning the national championship."

It's a connection that has a chance of growing stronger with each passing season.

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