Six of the Best: Minnesota-Duluth Beat Writer Kevin Pates

It’s generally agreed that this weekend, with Nebraska-Omaha welcoming top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth to CenturyLink Center, is the biggest of UNO’s season to date. UNO is attempting to sell out the arena for the first time, and welcoming the unanimous No. 1 team in the country to town will definitely help.

To help us preview the series, for this week’s edition of the “Six of the Best” interview series, RFO has been speaking with Kevin Pates, UMD hockey beat writer for the Duluth News Tribune.

Here, Pates gives his views on subjects such as this season’s Bulldogs, the Sell Out Duluth campaign, and how he sees this weekend’s games turning out.

Nebraska-Omaha is attempting to sell out CenturyLink Center for the first time on Friday, and its campaign to do so has been going on for a while. Has there been much talk about this around UMD’s program, and do you think playing in front of such a big crowd might have any effect on the Bulldogs?

Pates: The Sellout has been promoted at UNO for over a month, or longer, so the UMD players know about it. And they are all playing in the building for the first time. Yet they’ve already seen big crowds in Madison this season and noisy (but smaller crowds) in Kalamazoo, Mich.. So far, UMD’s road record (7-0-3) speaks for itself.

Bruce Ciskie (UMD radio announcer) joined us on Wednesday for our weekly online chat, and he said that with UMD not having played at home since mid-November, he’s somewhat concerned that the Duluth populous has forgotten about the team. He may have said that with tongue planted in cheek – it’s not always easy to analyze someone’s tone online – but does he have a point?

Pates: Traditionally in Duluth, the biggest crowds of the season are from January on….after hunting season, after most of the NFL season. In light of the 2011 NCAA title, Duluth’s media has spotlighted men’s hockey more than ever, so I doubt the team has been forgotten…its just been somewhat invisible on home ice.

Scott Sandelin was on Dean Blais’s coaching staff for the United States at the World Junior Championship, and this weekend’s series will be Blais’s first games back with UNO. How smooth was Sandelin’s transition back into the UMD fold last weekend against Western Michigan?

Pates: He went right from Calgary, Alberta, to Kalamazoo, Mich., and was there for the morning skate last Friday. He said he sensed that his team hadn’t taken any shortcuts during the time off. He said he could feel the team’s excitement and that it showed right in the first period Friday. Assistants Derek Plante, Jason Herter and Bill Watson had apparently done a good job in getting UMD ready. Sandelin said he’s just looking forward to being in Duluth for a weekend, which hasn’t happened since Nov. 19.

What are your key match-ups to keep an eye out for on the ice this weekend?

Pates: I would say UMD’s experience versus Nebraska-Omaha’s youth. Dean Blais says this is one of the younger teams he’s had as a college coach, while UMD has six seniors, including its top two scorers (Jack Connolly and Travis Oleksuk, tied with sophomore J.T. Brown) and senior goalie Kenny Reiter.

We’ve been asking all our interviewees this question, so we’ll ask you, too: What do you make of the NCHC? Happy with the teams that are joining into the new league together?

Pates: Realistically, I liked the WCHA the way it was (even with the defection of Minnesota and Wisconsin). I have covered UMD hockey off and on since 1978 and I am a WCHA guy. Yes, there are some excellent programs in the NCHC, it will be a decent league, but, selfishly, I liked having a number of close opponents, within driving distance of Duluth —- Michigan Tech, Mankato, Bemidji State. In the NCHC, our newspaper will travel to just two league opponents —- North Dakota and St. Cloud State. That’s it. We no longer fly to series. Hopefully non-conference series can be arranged with Bemidji, Mankato, Michigan Tech and Minnesota. It sounds like a Minnesota Beanpot-type weekend will be schedule starting 2013-14 for the weekend after the Super Bowl at the Xcel Energy Center, which would annually involve four of Minnesota’s five Division programs on a rotating basis.

Lastly, it’s prediction time. UNO has been building this weekend up as a big moment in the history of its hockey program, but do you see UMD spoiling the Mavericks’ party?

Pates: UMD is finishing up the longest road trip in program history —- four straight series since Dec. 2. So far the Bulldogs haven’t shown any ill effects of the travel. Their lineup has been intact for most of the unbeaten streak and they report no injuries. Certainly, no streak can go on forever, and a series split may seem in order, but I’ll pick the Bulldogs to continue its unbeaten ways for one more weekend. Sweep.

Many thanks go out to Kevin for taking a few minutes to speak with us. To find more from him, we highly suggest that you check out his Rink and Run blog. He’s also a must-follow on Twitter at @patesonskates.

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