BUFFALO, N.Y. — These are the moments every hockey player dreams of as they advance in their development.
It’s no different for University of Minnesota-Duluth defenseman and Waterloo native Hunter Lellig as his Bulldogs enter the national stage at the NCAA Frozen Four in Buffalo this week.
Add that he is in his freshman year and that dream becomes even more surreal.
“Coach has been preaching to us that this is very hard to do and that we may never get this opportunity again, so I’m just trying to enjoy it and take it all in and hopefully do it again in following years,” the 20-year old said after practice Wednesday.
Lellig has dressed for 25 games this season for UMD heading into the national semifinals in mostly a defensive role and has been content to learn from a talented blue line corps that includes three National Hockey League draft picks.
“It’s been good learning from these guys; we’ve got a great d-corps this year,” said Lellig. “We’ve got a lot of guys that really know what they’re doing and learning from them is great. It will be a great experience for years to come.
“I’m probably more of a defensive defenseman. When I can I like to get up in the rush and I like shooting the puck a lot, too, but first things first is (the) d-zone and that’s what I would say I am as a player. You want to put the puck in the net, you want to create offense, but if you do the right things in the d-zone and play structurally sound there, that will come.”
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What has helped in his transition from junior hockey to Division I this season is being able to do it with former Waterloo teammate and fellow freshman Jackson Cates, his roommate.
“Having a guy you know like that, especially after playing a year with him, it’s awesome to have one friend you know coming in makes it easier. And he’s way better than I am at video games. ‘Fortnite’ he’ll destroy me.”
Big games aren’t new for the 6-foot-2, 185-pound righthanded shooter. The Black Hawks won the Anderson Cup last season and advanced to the conference finals for the second year in a row with him on the blue line.
Lellig is the first Iowa native to dress for the Bulldogs, a designation he reflected on despite being on a national stage this week.
“I haven’t thought about it very much, but it’s kind of cool. I’m sure I won’t be the last. When I was really young, I played for the Jr. Hawks and went to Black Hawks games all the time. There was no college (hockey), there was no NHL. That was the team you wanted to play for.
“I have Craig Smith’s autograph, Joe Pavelski and all those guys who played in Waterloo back then. It’s pretty special.”
Top-seeded and defending champion Minnesota-Duluth advanced by winning the Midwest Regional and plays East Regional winner Providence in the first semifinal today at 4 p.m.