FUTURE WATCH | Simpson Leads Team to Frozen Four
Oilers prospect Dillon Simpson will captain the University of North Dakota in the Frozen Four, closing out his collegiate career
|Photo provided by UND Athletics/Eric Classen
It’s been a cyclical series of events for Simpson, 21, who has spent the past four seasons at the University of North Dakota and who will captain his team in the Frozen Four of the NCAA Men’s Hockey National Championship on Thursday.
2011 was Simpson’s freshman year, the year in which the defenceman was drafted in the fourth round, 92nd overall, by the Edmonton Oilers and, up until this year, it was the last time North Dakota made it to the Frozen Four. That was the beginning of a journey.
Now, in 2014, Simpson and his team are headed back to the Frozen Four and this tournament will close out his senior season and he’ll leave the university to pursue his professional career with the Oilers’ organization.
“It’s cool how the pattern works like that,” Simpson said. “Freshman year, after a tough year, to be able to get drafted by the Oilers was a great feeling for me and I’m still excited when I talk about it. Then this year, I’m trying to cap off a great year with a good run here. I’ve got all the faith in the world in our team. Then from there, hopefully being able to be a part of the Oilers organization somewhere and trying to play professional hockey will be a fun experience for me.”
Simpson captains UND and it hasn’t been the easiest of times.
“It’s been a season filled with a lot of adversity,” he said. “Kind of a younger team coming in with a lot of new guys having to step into bigger roles. The first bit of the season didn’t quite go the way we wanted it to. We dug ourselves a hole early. There kind of came a time where it was either we’ve got to do everything we can to claw back into it or kind of sink from there.”
After a 4-7-2 start to the season, North Dakota needed to re-focus or find themselves doing something other than hockey come tournament time. The team needed an intervention and it fell upon the veterans like Simpson to initiate change.
“We lost to St. Lawrence in our own building on a Friday night. It was probably our worst game of the year. That was November 29, and after the game our team, just the team no coaches, were in the room and we were still in our gear for an hour or two after the game and we kind of talked it out from there. We just got really honest with each other, said what needed to be said and from there we won Saturday night and then… our streak started that night and into the next weekend, throughout Christmas and into the spring. More than anything, that was for sure our turning point in the season and it’s been really cool to see how everyone from our young guys to our veterans responded from that day forward.”
Since that rough start, Simpson’s squad is 21-6-1.
“I’m really proud with how our team responded to that situation. We went on quite a streak, starting right before Christmas and throughout the spring and now we find ourselves playing in the Frozen Four. It’s a nice pay off after a lot of hard work.”
|Photo provided by UND Athletics/Eric Classen|
As a player who began his collegiate career as a true freshman, Simpson is younger than your typical fourth-year senior. This year was particularly trying on the youthful captain and he used it as a life lesson.
“It was kind of a learning experience for all of us,” he said. “For me more than anything, just trying to just keep things positive in the room with the younger guys coming in and having to play bigger roles and other guys maybe not having the starts they wanted to. It was trying to keep everyone on their toes and keep everyone pushing forward. There came a time when we kind of had to look at ourselves in the mirror and make a decision and guys responded well to that. With the group leaders we have on this team, we just kept relaying the message to really buy in and really stay positive and do what you can for the team. Ever since then, it’s been really successful.”
The pressure had never been so heavy on Simpson as it was during that start to the season.
“I think in a place like this, there’s a lot of pressure to win and when the team’s not doing well, you hear about it,” he said. “I think guys maybe took that and were kind of overwhelmed by it maybe at times. But as a leader, for me, it was a great learning experience just to stick with the plan and keep positive with the guys. As a leader, you’ve got to push guys to be better and the leadership group we have here, I think guys did a great job of getting everyone to buy in and then for me personally, just going through that whole up and down season, you really learn a lot about yourself and your team and I think more than anything it just builds a lot of character moving forward.”
The University of North Dakota will face off against the University of Minnesota on Thursday in the semifinals in Philadelphia, PA. It is a rivalry that has been placed on hold during the regular season due to conference re-alignments, but it is still a fierce and storied matchup.
“It was a great surprise for us to be able to play them. I know both teams will be really excited about it. It was something that was in the back of our minds and something I’m sure a lot of people hoped for before the end of the tournament. They’re a great team who have been here for many years and have been really good this year…. It will be an intense game like always. For us, we’re just excited to be able to play them and get the opportunity to move forward. We take the rivalry for what it is. It will be a huge game but at the end of the day, we’ve got to worry about ourselves more and try to play our best hockey and try to get a win on Thursday night.”
|Photo provided by UND Athletics
Frozen Four insanity got political this week when U.S. Senators John Hoeven from North Dakota and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota placed a friendly wager on the outcome of the game. Hoeven put up a box of chocolate-covered potato chips against Hlobuchar’s homemade frozen hot dish. The stakes are clearly high.
All levity aside, North Dakota has a serious challenge ahead of them, facing the top-seeded Golden Gophers who have blown through the tournament outscoring their first-two opponents 11-3.
“With the kind of pressures we’ve had to face and kind of the way we’ve been able to battle and fight to the tournament and play through the tournament, it’s just another process that will be a fun and excited time for us and a big challenge for us.”
As the 14th overall seeded team, North Dakota took care of business against two very good teams; Wisconsin and Ferris State. They seem to relish their role as the underdog, hard-working team they’ve become this season.
“I think you’ve got to take the position we’re in and use it as motivation. We’re a team from day one even through… we believed we have the team and the guys to do it. Coming in as an underdog for us, we just want to go there and play our best hockey, control what we can control and let everyone else talk about how maybe we shouldn’t be there. For us in that locker room, we believe we deserve to be there and we’re just going to use it as positive energy and motivation going in to Philadelphia.”
Simpson’s collegiate career has come full circle now. He’ll close out his season in the Frozen Four, a place where he once watched in the stands as a freshman. He’s been working hard all four years to return again and this time, he’ll be playing.
“After freshman year, this is something that I’ve definitely been working towards and hoping for. It’s been a four-year process where the payoff is I’m a senior now going to the Frozen Four with an opportunity. You’ve got to embrace it as much as you can and, for me, I don’t know if pressure is the right word but I put a lot of onus on myself for the team to play well.”
And just as he was drafted in 2011, the last time UND made the Frozen Four, Simpson returns in 2014, a year in which he will soon leave college behind and leap into professional hockey. His career has come full circle.
But for now, Simpson says the Oilers have told him to just focus on the present and the future will come later.
Barons Player Stats | AHL Standings | Barons Schedule | Past Prospect Stats: 2012-13 | 2011-12
Stats Updated as of Tuesday April 8, 2014 at 2:00 p.m. MDT
|d||19||68||7||14||21||-3||102||EVERETT SILVERTIPS (WHL)|
|f||19||70||35||50||85||29||83||CALGARY HITMEN (WHL)|
|DARNELL NURSE||D||19||64||13||37||50||1||91||SAULT STE. MARIE (OHL)|
|F||19||69||34||27||61||-2||72||VANCOUVER GIANTS (WHL)|
|f||19||59||16||27||43||5||59||EVERETT SILVERTIPS (WHL)|
|F||19||70||35||28||63||25||156||EDMONTON OIL KINGS (WHL)|
|F||19||39||9||8||17||-4||14||LONDON KNIGHTS (OHL)|
|27||13||6||19||-10||12||OWEN SOUND ATTACK (OHL)|
|F||24||41||5||9||14||10||142||JOKERIT HELSINKI (FINLAND)|
|F||19||49||2||2||4||2||35||NIZHNY NOVGOROD (RUSSIA)|
|26||48||24||17||6||2.99||.909||OKLAHOMA CITY (AHL)|
|LAURENT BROSSOIT||20||8||2||5||0||3.60||.888||OKLAHOMA CITY (AHL)|
|5||2||1||1||3.63||.901||OKLAHOMA CITY (AHL)|
|22||19||n/a||n/a||n/a||3.12||.894||HPK HAMEENLINNA (FINLAND)|
|0||-||-||-||-||-||OKLAHOMA CITY (AHL)|