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Blades skate way to nationals

By Mike Byker

It started when a group of college students wanted it to feel a little more like home while they were at college. What was missing? A hockey team. Th irtynine years later, the Dordt Blades have put together one of its fi nest seasons to date, earning a trip to the ACHA Division III national tournament.

Two years aft er a 2-21 record, the Dordt Blades hockey team earned its fi rst ever trip to the American College Hockey Association Division III national tournament, held in mid- March in Rochester, Minnesota.

The Blades earned the berth with a pair of shutout wins in the ACHA Regional tournament in Oakland, California, on Friday and Saturday, February 15 and 16. They turned away Cal-Davis 6-0 and the University of Wyoming 4-0, with Ted Gibbons working in goal for the shutouts that gave the Blades wins 21 and 22 for the season.

At press time, this year’s team was led in scoring by Todd Bakker (Chilliwack, British Columbia) with 46 goals and 42 assists for 88 points. Nate Woudstra (Denver, Colorado) was the top assist man with 45 and 20 goals scored. Kevin Prins (Foremost, Alberta) and Jared Rempel (Chilliwack, British Columbia) both had 53 points so far this season: Prins scored 24 goals and assisted on 29, and Rempel scored 22 goals and assisted on 31. Ted Gibbons (Sioux Center, Iowa) spent the majority of the season in goal for the Blades with a 2.76 goals allowed average, including four shutouts in more than 1600 minutes of play.

The groundwork for this historic season was laid two years ago, when an influx of talented freshman enrolled, according to Coach Nate van Niejenhuis.

“As freshman they showed a lot of promise,” says van Niejenhuis. “We were so inexperienced. There was enough there, though, that you knew they would grow into good players. Then things just began to fall into place.”

While they took their lumps, they showed enough promise that by the midpoint of the 2006-2007 school year they were able to play a talented crew from the University of Northern Colorado, the top team in the ACHA Division III, to an 8-7 loss on their home ice with just ten players. ”That was the most satisfying game, win or loss, that I’ve been associated with because we saw we could hang and play with the best,” says van Niejenhuis.

The ACHA Division III doesn’t allow scholarships, something van Niejenhuis says presents a challenge to coaches. “We have to deal with diff erent types of players from year to year. I’ve been graciously given high-caliber students and athletes. We’re not losing guys to academic ineligibility. We’ve got players who are involved in the community with youth coaching. It’s positive.”

The national tournament, with four games in four days, will present a unique set of challenges for the Blades and their sixteen-man roster.

“We’ll try to get through day one and day two and then cross our fingers for the last two days,” says van Niejenhuis. “Realistically I’d like us to be in the final four and then see what happens. You can’t help but think how sweet a national championship would be.”

The Blades opened tournament play against Central Florida on March 12 and then played the winner or loser of the Albany State-Saginaw Valley State contest on March 13. By the end of the tournament, all sixteen teams will play for all sixteen places in the four-day tournament. No matter the outcome of the national tournament, the Blades have blazed a trail that future teams will try to follow.

Several of the players have past connections to the Blades program, so they feel they’ve earned bragging rights.

“These players have had brothers play; they’ve had friends and fathers play for the Blades. Th is is something that started thirty-nine years ago with a group of guys who wanted to bring a bit of home with them. Who would have thought we’d be in a position to play for a national championship?” says van Niejenhuis.