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Winning chemistry began with former captain

Open the 2001 WCHA Final Five program to the section entitled “From the Captain’s Chair” and on those pages you’ll find Erik Westrum’s legacy.

Despite a well-earned reputation as one of the league’s most pugnacious players, Westrum received three votes from WCHA captains as the league’s best forward and four votes as its best overall player.

Currently skating for the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League, Westrum graduated from the University of Minnesota last season tied for 13th on the career points list.

The two-time captain was the type of player revered by his teammates and jeered by his opponents. Over his final two seasons, Westrum – Minnesota’s best center since 1996 Hobey Baker winner Brian Bonin – led all Gophers forwards in goals (53) and penalties (78).

Westrum’s senior class paved the way for Minnesota’s first NCAA berth in four years. The 5-4 overtime loss to Maine left returning players hungry for another postseason run.

Aside from his talents with the puck, Westrum also served as a catalyst in the locker room. The senior set an example of acceptance for all players, regardless of age or class.

As Minnesota heads into Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinal game against Michigan, Westrum’s work to improve team chemistry has paid huge dividends.

“Leaving a legacy of that NCAA championship bid was a big thing for me,” Westrum said. “I wanted to get everyone involved and make it like a family.

“I don’t feel I should get recognized for this season, but I’d like to think last year’s seniors helped build the foundation they’re putting the house on.”

Current co-captains Jordan Leopold and Johnny Pohl recognize the lasting impact made by Westrum and other recently departed players like Dylan Mills and Nate Miller.

As a freshman in 1998, Leopold and his fellow rookies were shielded from the taunts of upperclassmen by the sophomore Westrum.

Added Pohl: “Westy is great at making everyone feel like they’re part of the team. He excludes no one, and he probably treats freshmen better than anyone else.”

Westrum remains closely involved with his former teammates, talking by telephone to Leopold, Pohl, Matt Koalska, Troy Riddle, and Grant Potulny “once or twice a week.”

Watching his former team get stronger down the stretch of the season has Westrum feeling confident about Minnesota’s chances in the Frozen Four. He said the team’s two weaknesses last season, defense and goaltending, are soft spots no more.

But for all his interest, Westrum is taking a hands-off approach, offering encouragement and simply reminding the guys to take full advantage of their Frozen Four opportunity.

“He’s basically there to say good luck and ask what The Library was like last weekend,” Pohl said.

Still a feisty player, Westrum’s been in six fights this season, and recalled one as a unanimous decision.

Ironically, the victim was Andy Hilbert of the Providence Bruins. Hilbert left the University of Michigan after his sophomore season last year.

Though no longer donning Minnesota’s sweater in games, Westrum remains deeply rooted in the program’s pride and tradition, and counts himself fortunate to have played on a team nearing the national championship.

“My name’s not going to be on the team picture,” Westrum said. “But I know I’ll have been friends with these guys, bled with them and went into the corners with them.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]

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