Monday, 22 July 2013

May The Force Be With USHL

Hockey is certainly alive and well in North Dakota with the NCAA's University of North Dakota being one of collegiate hockey's more prolific teams, but there is another option when it comes to North Dakotans' hockey dollars. The USHL granted an expansion franchise to Ace Brandt to play out of Fargo, North Dakota, and the Fargo Force began its illustrious history in 2008.

The USHL is the top junior ice hockey league in the United States, consisting of sixteen hockey teams from the American midwest. Much like the CHL, the USHL permits plays aged 20 and under to compete in the league. Because the USHL is an amateur league, the players who graduate from their respective teams are still able to enroll in the NCAA and play hockey there if accepted.

The Fargo Force are officially the northernmost team in the USHL with their closest rival being three hours away in the Sioux Falls Stampede. It's a long trek to their furthest rival in the Youngstown Phantoms who play out of Youngstown, Ohio - a mere 895 miles away. While their outpost-like status makes travel a little difficult on some occasions, it hasn't slowed down the Force as they've seen some incredible success since taking the ice in 2008.

The team held a name-the-team contest in 2007 that resulted in the following three names being selected as finalists: Force, Fire, and Phantoms. "Force" was chosen as the name, setting the franchise in motion to take the ice.

The Force went out and found themselves an incredible person to guide the ship as former University of North Dakota bench boss Dean Blais was given the titles of general manager and head coach. Blais found himself a number of very capable players to lead the Force to a 32-23-0-5 record and third in Western Conference. They earned a playoff spot, leading to an opening-round series with the Omaha Lancers. Fargo made quick work of them in dispatching them 3-0 to advance to the second round. Fargo would hammer the Lincoln Stars in three games as well, advancing to the USHL Final against the Indiana Ice. The magic would run out, though, after the Force won Game One, dropping three straight games to Indiana by a combined 16-3 score.

Despite losing in the Clark Cup Championship Final, the first season for the Force was a resounding success. Andy Taranto led the team in goals and scoring with 34 goals and 59 points. Taranto tied for the league lead in goals scored, and was tied for tenth in points. Matt Leitner would end up in fourth-place for assists in the league. Mike Lee played 48 games between the pipes, leading the team with a 26-15-4 record, a 2.40 GAA, and a .918 save percentage. Clearly, the team had a few stars and almost did the unthinkable in winning a championship in their inaugural season!

Dean Blais, however, would leave in the summer as he took the head coaching job with the NCAA's University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. The Force began their search for a new man to lead the team, and they appointed Steve Johnson, a former assistant coach, as the new head coach. Johnson led the Force to a 37-17-1-5 record in their second season, good for second-place in the Western Conference. This, of course, put them into the playoffs where they caught fire again. The Force ended the Sioux Falls Stampede's playoffs in three games, leading to a series with the Omaha Lancers. These two teams traded blows, but Fargo would dismiss Omaha in a 3-2 series count. Once again, Fargo would be in the Clark Cup Championship. Fargo would win Games One and Two, but dropped three straight games to finish second for the second-straight season.

Being finalists in their second season kept the crowds happy and box office rolling, but there was some disappointment in falling short again. Matt Leitner was the top scorer for the Force with 25 goals and 41 assists, putting him as the tenth-best scorer in the USHL. Leitner's 41 assists were good for eighth overall in the helpers category. Chase Grant would finish tied for eighth in the league with 28 goals. Ryan Massa was the top goalie for Fargo as he went 19-7-2 in his 33 appearances, posting a 3.18 GAA and a .896 save percentage. Once again, Fargo had a number of stars on the ice, but fell just short in the end.

Like the summer before, the head coach vacated his position as Steve Johnson followed Dean Blais' lead in jumping to the NCAA. Johnson accepted an assistant coaching position with the NCAA's St. Cloud State Huskies. The coaching carousel began again, and another assistant coach was promoted as Jason Herter was named as the head coach of the Fargo Force for the 2010-11 season.

Herter led the team to a 33-22-2-3 record, tying them with the Lincoln Stars for fourth-place in the Western Conference. They would qualify for the playoffs, and these two teams would meet in the opening round of the Clark Cup Playoffs. Fargo would have little trouble in dismissing the Stars 2-0 in their best-of-three series, pitting them against the powerful Dubuque Fighting Saints. Dubuque played nearly flawless hockey in sending the Force home three games. For the first time in their history, the Force would watch another team compete for the Clark Cup.

Jimmy Mullin was the offensive leader for the Force, scoring 23 goals and 37 assists on the campaign. His 37 assists were ninth-best in the USHL, and his 60 points were seventh-best in the circuit. Ryan Massa was the main man in the blue paint, playing 33 games to amass a record of 19-9-4, a 2.37 GAA, and a .908 save percentage. Pushing Massa hard in the nets, though, was Zane Gothberg. Gothberg went 14-8-0 in 23 games with a 2.23 GAA and a .908 save percentage. There wasn't as many offensive stars to go around in 2010-11, but the defensive game stepped up their end.

Guess what happened in the summer? Head coach Jason Herter stepped away from the Force for an assistant coaching position with the NCAA's University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, marking the fourth time in the team's four-year history that the Force were searching for a head coach in the summer. They would look north as they brought in former UND head coach and MJHL's Winkler Flyers coach John Marks to steer the ship as they looked for some continuity in their head coaching position.

Marks led the Force in their 2011-12 season to a 31-23-0-6 record, landing them in fourth-place in the Western Conference. This would qualify them for the playoffs once again, leading them to an opening-round matchup with the Sioux City Musketeers. Fargo won the first two games of the best-of-three series to advance to the second round where they ran into the Lincoln Stars. Fargo would take Game One by a 2-1 score in overtime, but Lincoln would rally to take the next three games to eliminate the Force in the second round for the second-straight season.

Austin Farley would lead the Force in scoring with 28 goals and 59 points in 51 games. Farley and teammate Bryn Chyzyk would tie for eighth-place in league goal-scoring with their 28 goals apiece. Farley would end up in a tie for the tenth-highest point total in the USHL with his 59 points. Zane Gothberg played the vast majority of time in the blue paint, logging a 26-16-4 record in 46 games while posting a 2.22 GAA and a .921 save percentage with seven shutouts. The Force fell short once more, but four straight years of playoffs is nothing to be ashamed of when looking at the league.

For the first time in team history, a coach returned! John Marks took the team into the 2012-13 campaign, and finished up with a 38-19-0-7 record to put Fargo in second-place in the Western Conference. Fargo would square off with the Waterloo Black Hawks in the opening round, and these teams would need all five games to determine a winner. Fargo would dent twine at 6:38 of overtime in Game Five to advance! The Force would again need five games against the Sioux Falls Stampede, but skated to a 7-4 victory in Game Five to push them into the Clark Cup Championship! In the final, though, they ran into the Dubuque Fighting Saints who played superb hockey. Like their previous matchup, Fargo did not record a win in a three-game sweep, and the Force were bridesmaids once more.

Dominic Toninato and Brendan Harms finished tied with 70 points to lead the Force in scoring. Harms was fifth-overall in the league for assists with 45 while Toninato finished tied for tenth-place with 41 helpers. Both players finished tied for eighth-place in league scoring. Gabe Guertler finished in ninth-place overall in the league with 31 goals. Brendan Jensen was the man between the pipes for Fargo as he appeared in 38 games, posting a 24-11-1 record with a 2.92 GAA and a .911 save percentage.

If there was a team in the USHL who could be considered the model franchise, the Force have been finalists three times and were ousted in the second round twice. In five seasons, they have played for the league's playoff championship five times. And they did this under four separate men who have coached and been the team's general manager.

Well done, Fargo Force, and here's hoping your future successes can be as good as these. Or better!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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