Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser, Nick Schmaltz. These are the heavy offensive hitters you frequently heard about from the University of North Dakota hockey team.
But in a 0-0 opening period of the National Championship, it was Shane Gersich who crept up along the Qunnipiac crease to notch the Fighting Hawks' first goal of the game. Gersich and his fellow Fighting Hawks would win the game 5-1, earning North Dakota their eighth all-time NCAA Mens Hockey Championship, just one behind the University of Michigan for the most of any NCAA program in the country. It was the Fighting Hawks' first hockey championship in quite some time. Gersich joins a list of current Capitals that have gone through the decorated program, including T.J. Oshie, Taylor Chorney and new arrival Brad Malone.
Shane Gersich digs out a rebound and puts UND up 1-0 pic.twitter.com/C20YqMun2k— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) April 10, 2016
"Obviously it was a really special year," Gersich said. "Sixteen years there without a championship is a pretty long time for a place like North Dakota."
Gersich knows the history of North Dakota hockey all too well, despite the fact that he grew up in Minnesota, a state of hockey that has deep ties to the Gersich family. After all, his father, Frank, played for the University of Minnesota, and his uncles, Neal, Aaron and Paul Broten all dominated as Golden Gophers. Does the name "Neal Broten" sound familiar? He's the first ever Hobey Baker award winner and, perhaps most notably, a member of the 1980 Team USA mens hockey gold medal and Soviet-beating team.
But Gersich wanted to carve his own path, and it was obviously a pretty good choice.
As a freshman, Gersich played as a bottom-six player, recording nine goals and two assists in 37 games.
"I thought for me it was more of a learning year," Gersich said. "We had a lot of really good guys, but, at the same time, everyone contributed. And that’s how you win."
A bottom-six role is something Gersich has grown accustomed to. Playing for the U.S. National Development Team in the 2013-14 season, Gersich was naturally forced out of the premier offensive spots on the team, playing behind first-round talents like Dylan Larkin (15th-overall, Detroit Red Wings), Sonny Milano (16th-overall, Columbus Blue Jackets) and Alex Tuch (18th-overall, Minnesota Wild), and an underage player by the name of Jack Eichel (2nd-overall in 2015, Buffalo Sabres), and even a really underaged player named Auston Matthews (1st-overall this year, Toronto Maple Leafs). Gersich finished off his one year at the program with 16 goals and 16 assists in 61 games. That production earned Gersich a spot in the 2014 draft, and he was selected by the Capitals with their fifth-round pick, the 134th player selected overall, and the fifth forward selected by the National Development Team Program.
But Gersich will likely see an increased role with the Fighting Hawks next season. After all, Schmaltz signed a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Drake Caggiula signed with the Edmonton Oilers, but he was already a senior anway. Boeser will return, but North Dakota had three additional forwards graduate. Gersich's nine goals this season was second amongst North Dakota freshman, trailing only leading scorer Boeser. And Gersich's 15.3 shooting percentage was fourth on the team, trailing only, yeah, you guessed it, Boeser, Caggiula and Schmaltz. Even with 2016 first-rounder Tyson Jost getting added to the mix for this upcoming season, Gersich should see a bit more playing time.
And while he's dealt with bottom-six roles in the past, Gersich playing a large role on his team is not something foreign to the soon-to-be 20-year-old. At Holy Family Catholic, Gersich's high school in Minnesota, he regularly churned out productive seasons after productive seasons. In his first year at the school, Gersich scored 16 goals and 23 assists in 23 games as an eighth grader. His freshman year, it was 30 goals and 30 assists in 20 games. As a sophomore, it was 28 goals and 34 assists in 24 games. Gersich then moved on to some more competitive hockey with the National Development Program, but after he was drafted in 2014, Gersich entered the USHL with the Omaha Lancers for a season before the NCAA. He was drafted by the Lancers in 2012 with the first-overall selection in the USHL Futures Draft (Gersich actually played six games with the Lancers in that 2012 season, recording a single goal, before heading to the National Development Program). Gersich averaged nearly a point per game in that 2014-15 season, with 27 goals and 23 assists in 52 games. That was the second-most points on his team, behind only Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, a Boston Bruins high-end prospect, and tied for the 20th-most in the entire league.
As Gersich completed his most recent Development Camp, Gersich appeared to be excited with his progression year after year. The camps are becoming a bit more fluid for Gersich. He recognizes drills and processes, strategies and coaching installments. He enjoys spending time with his fellow campers that he's developed friendships with over the last few years, ones that all share a common goal.
"(Development Camp) has been great," Gersich said. "It’s my third year here, so I kind of know the ropes a little bit. It’s been a little different each year, but, at the same time, it’s nice to come here and see all of the familiar faces and get a good week of training in and learn a few things."
Gersich is fully aware of what he needs to improve on, both at the camp itself and at the University of North Dakota. Gersich is excited about the possibility of future success at his school, and, lucky for him, Gersich believes he simply needs to fine tune the things he already excels at to help out his team. The rest? It's mostly just about hitting the gym and adjusting his mentality.
"I just have to keep working on my strengths," Gersich said. "Just my speed and stuff like that. At the same time, I’ve got to work on getting stronger in my upper body and I think I can get a little stronger in the corners. Stuff like that will really help me out a lot."
Gersich needs to put in the work, and he knows that. But, looking back at all that he has accomplished already, with the hockey pedigree he has coursing through his veins, it's easy to believe that Gersich will be fully committed to work towards getting better all of the time.
"I'm just trying to be a pro every day," Gersich said.