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home : sports : sports May 27, 2017

4/7/2017 9:28:00 AM
THE PUCK STOPS HERE
Former North Branch netminder Miska punctuates season with Frozen Four shot
by JEFF NORTON


Hunter Miska always had dreams to play high level hockey. As a mite and squirt in the North Branch hockey program, he was a talented forward who belonged well above his age group with soft hands and good speed.

His dreams have been coming true throughout the past few years and this year have led him to the Frozen Four with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Only part of the dream is true, though. Miska, in an ironic twist of fate, is the starting goalie for UMD.

Although he grew up as a forward, Miska made the switch to the goalmouth in ninth grade because the Vikings didn’t have any capable goalies on the roster and he had rotated a bit in net throughout his younger years. The ironic part about it is that Hunter’s dad, Todd, is a renowned goalie mask artist who works with the Minnesota Wild and other NHL goaltenders on their helmets.

Miska’s short but successful career has led him to the Frozen Four this weekend, college hockey’s equivalent to March Madness. The Bulldogs are only there because of Miska, according to UMD Assistant Athletic Director Bob Nygaard. “He made multiple season-saving stops,” Nygaard said in reference UMD’s regional semifinal win over Ohio State. In that contest, Miska had 40 saves on 42 shots and UMD won 3-2 in overtime.

In the regional final, the Bulldogs faced off with the Boston University Terriers, who feature multiple highly drafted NHL prospects. Miska again had a critical hand in that win, sending those NHL prospects to an early start to their pro careers with another 3-2 overtime win.

To get to this spot, though, Miska has had a crash course in the art of goaltending. Since he didn’t take it up until ninth grade, he started far behind most of his contemporaries. And one of the main reasons he took it up was because of his unique opportunity to interact with goalies at the highest level. “Being around NHL guys through my dad and hearing their stories was amazing,” Miska said. “I wanted to live those stories and experiences.”

Miska’s mom initially didn’t want him to switch to the backline. “She thought I was a better forward,” he said.

Miska’s two seasons between the pipes at North Branch were successful. His stats weren’t out of this world, as the team went a combined 22-28-3 in his two years, but the difference was night and day. In the four years prior to Miska starting in goal the Vikings had gone 7-80-2.

“I never had any doubt about my switch from forward to goalie. Although my stats weren’t top of the state, I thought I was doing well compared to where they had been,” he said. Miska recorded the school’s first ever shutout in a 12-0 win over Spooner in the ‘09-’10 season. But he still saw a lot of shots throughout his two years and had a lot of action. “It was a lot of work, but I wouldn’t be the goalie I am today without getting that work in,” he said.

Miska’s first year was as a freshman on a senior-laden team and he has remained friendly with most of that team. In his second year, he played with more of the guys that he grew up playing with and he said he still keeps in touch with most of them.

After two years at North Branch, Miska had an opportunity to play for the United States National Developmental team. He said the experience was similar to that of a boarding school, but that he first started to get the elite level work in and learn some of the nuances of the game. “I knew I’d missed my buddies, but taking the next step in my career and getting a chance to wear ‘USA’ across my chest was very special,” Miska explained of his decision.

Miska could only play on the developmental team until he was 18, and then his frozen journey took him to the Pentiction Vees in British Columbia of the BCHL. He posted two stellar seasons for the Vees before moving up to the USHL and playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2015-16. He had an outstanding year for the Saints, breaking the team’s single season wins record and being named the Dave Peterson Goalie of the Year, the top USA Hockey distinction for a netminder.

“My junior career helped me tremendously. I was exposed to a lot of different styles of hockey and learned a lot about my game and the game of hockey itself,” Miska said.

Since the right-handed Miska was 20 years old, he was out of junior hockey years, but he was in high demand as a college hockey goalie. He had his choice of some high-level Division 1 colleges, but he wanted to play close to home after being so far away for his junior career. “I knew I wanted to be a Bulldog,” he said. He had a few other offers at the time, but when he initially got the UMD offer, he knew the process was over.

UMD has benefitted greatly from the choice to offer Miska. They have a talented, senior-laden team that was a bad bounce away from going to the Frozen Four last season. Most thought they were a goalie away from being right back in the same spot, but there was the question of who it was going to be since Miska was an unknown quantity on the college level. “There were the whispers around Duluth early in the season who the goalie would be this season, but I knew in the back of my mind it was going to be me,” Miska said. “I expect to win and I was ready for this opportunity.”

After a quality regular season that saw Miska named as one of the five finalists for the Mike Richter Award, given to the nation’s top goalie, the whole season came down to the West Regional at Scheel’s Arena in Fargo, North Dakota.

The draw was brutal for the top-seeded Bulldogs. Boston and their bevy of highly-touted NHL prospects were the second seed. Defending national champions North Dakota were the third seed, and they were essentially the home team in each game. Unpredictable Ohio State, who had shown flashes of brilliance this year mixed with disappointing games in between, was the fourth seed and UMD’s first round opponent. Miska stood on his head against the Buckeyes, not only making 40 saves, but some of them of the spectacular variety.

Boston University dispatched the Fighting Hawks in their first round match up in a thrilling two overtime win, The win sett up the showdown of the top two seeds that Duluth ended up winning in overtime. Two of Boston University’s players have already moved on to their NHL teams after the defeat and nine more players are currently NHL draft picks.

The two wins to go along with the exceptional performance against OSU, earned Miska MVP honors of the West Region, an honor he appreciated. “It was a huge honor for me,” he said. “There were a lot of good players in the region and it’s crazy they picked me.”

The two wins moved the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four in Chicago, Illinois. They are joined by their first opponent Harvard, and Denver University and Notre Dame on the other half of the bracket. “Harvard has a great offense and some good shifty forwards,” Miska said. “But I’m confident. I’m approaching it like all of the other games from this season. Staying mentally sharp and just approach the game with the swagger I’ve had all year. As a team, we just need to play structured defense and keep them in their own end.”

Miska has had one look at an NHL development camp so far, participating in the Ottawa Senators event last year. He has two scheduled for the off-season this year with the hometown Wild and the new Las Vegas Golden Knights franchise. “My ultimate goal is to play in the NHL and be a stud there like the guys my dad works with,” Miska said. “It would be exciting to put on that hometown Wild jersey, but I would love to play for any team in the league.”

Since he is no longer draft eligible, Miska is free to sign with any NHL team after the season, but as a freshman in class, he still has a potential long career ahead of him as a Bulldog. Anything planned for after the season is a bit too far ahead for Miska. He has his eyes on Harvard and the Frozen Four this weekend. “It’s going to be exciting playing in Chicago,” he said. “I’m going to need to be on the top of my game when the time comes.”

Miska and the Bulldogs beat Harvard 2-1 in the opening game of the Frozen Four on Thursday, April 6. The national championship game will be Saturday, April 8 at 8 p.m. against Denver, who dispatched Notre Dame on the other side of the bracket.



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