"You couldn't ask for a better group to work with," Devils Lake head coach Jens Stokke said of the team's senior class.
By Harry Lipsiea
Walking out of the locker rooms inside the friendly confines of Burdick Arena, it was easy to tell seniors on the Devils Lake boys hockey team felt at home. It's a special place, the players collectively agreed.
"There's no other place I would want to have as my home arena," senior forward Jacob Martin commented. "It's been great."
The good news for the Firebird hockey team is that it has earned another game on its home ice. With a dominant victory over Fargo North Thursday and triumph by Grand Forks Central, which broke a potential tiebreaker, Devils Lake hosts Fargo South-Shanley Tuesday (tonight) at 7 p.m in the first round of the EDC Regional Hockey Tournament.
In the five years that the EDC has used the current system, Tuesday's contest is the first-ever playoff game held at Burdick Arena.
"Getting one more game at home will definitely give us an edge," Ryyan Reule, senior forward, stated. "The more time we can spend in this arena, the better. We have played well here this season."
While not having to travel and being comfortable in its surroundings, the Devils Lake hockey team has extra motivation when playing at home.
At the end of the day, it's the fans that keep the Firebirds excited to come back. Senior players point out that the atmosphere in the Burdick is above and beyond any other opponents' arena.
"We definitely have some of the best fans in the state," Brady Johnson, senior defenseman, commented. "Our student section is awesome. They just go crazy."
Senior goaltender Wyatt Ness added, "The community support is just awesome. We love the way everyone comes out to our games."
Through the years, the senior class has played a lot of hockey together. The chance to compete in one last game in Burdick Arena is an opportunity the upperclassmen aren't taking for granted. It's been a good venue for the Devils Lake hockey players.
"Lots of good memories in this building," Matthew Boren, senior defenseman, pointed out. "We have played so many games here together."
"Couldn't ask for better"
For third-year head coach Jens Stokke, this year's senior group has been a pleasure to work with.
The 10-man senior class includes Jacob Martin, Ryyan Reule, Matthew Boren, Kale Miller, Jaydon Grafsgaard, Brody Vose, Alec Miller, Brady Johnson, Wyatt Ness and Caden Parker.
Through the years, these players have gone above-and-beyond to become successful individually and as a team, Stokke commented.
"These seniors have been so dedicated from a young age. From lifting to summer camps, this group has done whatever it has needed to do," the coach added.
"They are seeing that hard work paying off. Putting themselves into the game through the years have really benefited the program."
One feature of a strong senior class is the ability to provide proven leadership to younger players. That has been the case with this group during the 2016-2017 campaign.
Stokke points out to how the team was able to right the ship after a tough loss to Grand Forks Central on the road. The Firebirds bounced back with its triumph over Fargo North to clinch a home playoff game.
"To show that we could hold it together after a difficult loss and get right back on it against Fargo North says a lot about these guys," the coach stated. "This senior group is something special. They pick everyone up in the locker room."
The seniors credit upperclassmen for the efforts to lead the way when they were coming up through the ranks of the varsity program.
"We have been trying to show that leadership that the seniors gave to us when we were young," Johnson said.
Coachable is one word that the head coach used to describe the 2017 senior class. The ability to grasp what the coaching staff is teaching has made for an enjoyable experience, Stokke said.
"If us coaches say something they are there listening. This is a motivated group who reacts well to whatever we tell them," he said. "I have absolutely no complaints. You couldn't ask for a better group."
The head coached noted that it is a very close senior class. If it's pre-game meals or road trips, the players always spend time together.
"It's a tight knit family in this locker room," Stokke said. "When guys get along well together it shows on the ice. This is a very tight unit."
Each senior noted that they have became very close with each other over the years playing hockey together. That chemistry began at an early age as they played together in the youth program.
"Going on the road every weekend and playing floor hockey at hotels was the best," Ness said. "Those are times I will never forget."
Martin added, "We've really enjoyed bonding together. It's been a lot of fun."
For Johnson, playing hockey at Burdick Arena with his teammates is already something the senior looks forward to remember with fond memories.
"That's the thing that we all have. When we get older, we are going to have those experiences of playing hockey to go back on," he said.
Ending with a bang
Expectations were high going into the season, the senior class noted. The team was focused on improving last season's 4-10 conference mark and overall record of 8-15.
Despite playing in the always-tough EDC, the players were confident that the season had potential to be a special one.
"We knew we could do well," Reule said. "It wasn't going to be easy, because there are so many good teams in our conference. But, we were excited about the team we could have this season."
The Firebirds have had a nice season finishing the conference season with an 8-6 record. Devils Lake brings a 14-7 overall mark to postseason play. The squad has an impressive resume including victories over WDA powers Bismarck and Minot as well as a triumph over the third seed in the EDC Fargo Davies.
Still, the team has its sights set on bigger things.
"It's been a pretty good year," Boren said. "We have had some really good wins. But, we have some unfinished business. Our goal is doing well in the playoffs."
One thing the players are not trying to think about is the senior element of it all.
As the Firebirds take on the Bruins tonight, it will be the last time the group skates as a team at Burdick Arena. Senior night has come and gone. Other 'lasts' are on its way, the group pointed out. But, that is not what is on its mind.
"It hasn't really hit us yet, but it will soon. We can't really think about it," Ness said. "It's been an awesome ride. I can't thank the community enough for its support."