The Canadian Press, nhl.com
Having just completed his second season in the NAHL in 2010-11, Connor Gaarder appeared to be on his way to a career in NCAA Division III hockey when he accepted a last-minute invitation to walk on at the University of North Dakota.
North Dakota Senior captain Dillon Simpson recalls Gaarder "absolutely dying" when coach Dave Hakstol put the players through a grueling conditioning test on the first day of practice. But he finished, Hakstol said, and endeared himself to his teammates in the process. "It was what he did when he hit that wall," Hakstol said. "He just kept going."
The junior from Edina, Minnesota, has developed into North Dakota's workhorse. He has played in all 41 games this season and chipped in several key goals, including his double-overtime game-winner against Ferris State 10 days ago that lifted the team into this weekend’s NCAA Frozen Four tournament.
North Dakota will open against long-time rivals Minnesota on Thursday.
Junior Stephane Pattyn, like Gaarder a rare walk-on at one of the top programs in the country, said Gaarder never gets cheated when he takes the ice. "He'll work hard every shift," Pattyn said. "He's going to give you an honest effort. He's just a junkyard dog."
Gaarder went the first 11 games this season without a point before notching eight goals and eight assists in the next 30 games. That has vaulted him to 11th on the team in scoring. North Dakota is 10-1-1 over the last three years when Gaarder has scored a goal.
While Gaarder usually keeps his postgame comments short and appears uncomfortable talking about his own game, teammate Mark MacMillan said that shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of leadership. Quite the opposite, he said.
"He brings a lot to the room that probably a lot of people don't see," MacMillan said. "Connor is the type of guy that everyone wants on their team. He's willing to do whatever it takes."
Gaarder was part of a high-powered line at Edina, one of the top high school programs in Minnesota. Anders Lee moved on to Notre Dame, and now the New York Islanders. Marshall Everson went directly from high school to Harvard and spent this past season with the Gwinnett Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League.
Prior to his time with North Dakota, Gaarder wound up playing two seasons in the North American Hockey League in 2009-10 for the North Iowa Outlaws and in 2010-11 for the Coulee Region Chill. Gaarder put up some good numbers while in the NAHL and played in back-to-back NAHL Top Prospect Tournaments in December of 2010 in Boston and in February of 2011 in Ann Arbor.
Gaarder put up some solid numbers in his two years in the NAHL, playing in 116 career regular season games and recording 87 points. He also made the most of both NAHL Top Prospects events as he recorded nine points in seven Top Prospects games.
Everson, who played alongside Gaarder for a decade, said he expected Gaarder to have a "ton of offers" from D-I schools. "In my opinion he was one of the most complete players in the state," Everson said. "It never really made sense to me. I really think for a long time he was overlooked by a lot of teams and a lot of coaches. I thought it was a mistake the whole time."