U hockey title takes different path than basketball’s title run

Michael Rand

In a span of six hours, two Minnesota sports teams celebrated conference championships. For the first time in the school’s history, the men’s hockey and basketball teams won their respective league titles in the same season.
The paths each team took to get there, however, are as different as the sports themselves. The glide of a skate blade doesn’t translate into the pound of a court shoe. A slap shot draws no comparison with a three-pointer.
Likewise, the basketball team’s start-to-finish domination of the Big Ten is much different than the hockey team’s herky-jerky ride to the top.
Aside from the blatantly obvious facts — both are major sports teams at Minnesota, and each plays in one of the premier leagues in its respective sport — the constants are almost non-existent. Except for one: Bobby Jackson, meet Ryan Kraft.
Each player has symbolized his team’s season. With his scoring, rebounding, and all-out hustle, Jackson, a senior, has been the driving force behind the basketball team’s 15-1 conference record.
Similarly, Kraft, a junior, has become what the hockey team desperately needed him to be during the squad’s run in the second half of the season: A scorer. A leader. A quasi-Brian Bonin figure capable of piggy-backing the team.
Before Christmas, Kraft had six goals in 16 games — hardly statistics worthy of praise, particularly in his mind.
During the holiday break, the junior from Moorhead made his transformation. It started late one night, while he was shooting the breeze with teammate Dan Hendrickson.
“I had a heart-to-heart chat with Hendy,” Kraft said. “He told me I had too good of a shot to not be shooting. I kind of took that to heart.”
Since the break, Kraft has 18 goals in 20 games. His season total is 24, compared to 13 in each of his first two seasons. He almost single-handedly defeated Northern Michigan on Feb. 8, scoring both of the team’s goals in a 2-1 win.
Like Jackson, however, he saved his best for when his team absolutely needed it.
This weekend, with a chance at a WCHA co-championship on the line against Wisconsin, Kraft scored five goals and added an assist.
One of his two goals on Friday gave the Gophers a 4-2 lead in a game they won, 4-3. The first of his three goals on Saturday tied the score 2-2 early in the third period and opened the floodgates for a six-goal period. He also scored the last goal of the game and of the Gophers regular season.
Kraft’s contributions are a big reason Minnesota celebrated two championships Saturday night when one month ago many people only thought there would be one.
“I think a fear of losing again drove me,” Kraft said. “I didn’t want to have any regrets.”
The line of Kraft, Wyatt Smith and Erik Rasmussen has been so good in recent weeks that their teammates expect them to score.
“Rico Pagel has a bet that if our line doesn’t score at least three goals in a night, he’s not talking to us,” Smith joked.
Fittingly, Kraft and Jackson’s paths crossed Saturday night. Jackson, along with fellow seniors John Thomas and Trevor Winter, visited the hockey team’s locker room to wish them good luck.
“They just came in and said they were really proud of winning the Big Ten and that it would be great if we could win the WCHA,” Kraft said. “It was special that they took time out of celebrating to do that for us.”
It’s doubtful any member of the trio has ever laced up a pair of hockey skates. It’s also unlikely that any of the hockey players can dunk a basketball.
Jackson and Kraft, as well as the teams they led, found common ground as champions.