Fiery captain Erik Westrum hopes to lead Gophers back to national title contention

David La

Minnesota’s spirited captain Erik Westrum enjoyed a career night in the Gophers 9-3 drubbing of Bemidji State two weeks ago, tallying a goal and four assists.
But Westrum’s evening reached its zenith on an otherwise unspectacular second period assist to defenseman Ben Tharp.
Westrum was tackled and punched by Beavers defenseman Jesse Balsimo moments before passing to Tharp for the goal.
As usual, a team celebration ensued following Tharp’s score, a gathering made possible by an unusually constrained Westrum.
It’s this type of retaliation Minnesota desires from its senior captain, the team leader in goals and penalty minutes last season and a player whose competitive fire can lead to sudden combustion.
“I’m so emotional on the ice,” Westrum said. “It’s part of my nature. I want to win.”
The 5-foot-11, 186-pound Westrum makes an indelible impression every time he steps on the ice — a center who’s one part magician, one part evil sorcerer.
“He’s a great teammate,” junior Johnny Pohl said. “But he’s probably the biggest prick in the league to play against. Nobody likes to play against him because he plays so hard. He doesn’t ever take a shift off.”
A relentless, inspired Westrum began last season scoring four goals in two games against defending national champion Maine, leaving awed Bears coach Shawn Walsh to comment, “He’s a legitimate all-American, Hobey Baker candidate.”
On Jan. 14, Minnesota fought its way through a topsy-turvy game with Denver. Down 5-1 after the first period, the Pioneers battled back to knot the game at six.
During the overtime period, Westrum — who’d scored a goal and added two assists — exchanged pleasantries with Denver defenseman Erik Adams. During the tussle, Westrum inexplicably kicked Adams in the mid-section.
For his kick, Westrum was ejected from the game, and disqualified to play the following night. In light of the incident, the WCHA tacked on an additional game suspension.
“I know Erik didn’t do it deliberately, and it wasn’t something that was premeditated,” Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said recently. “I know that because I got to know him this summer.”
Westrum, along with teammates Jordan Leopold and Pohl, played on the WCHA all-star team this summer. The experience shed new light on Westrum as an authentic, driven competitor.
Gwozdecky spoke of a game in which a back-checking Westrum broke up a odd-man rush about to strike. For his effort, Westrum earned player of the game honors from his teammates.
“His drive and competitive spirit really made a great play at a time we needed it,” Gwozdecky said. “Erik is respected as a fierce competitor throughout the league, but he also showed a more disciplined side. As a result, he was a very effective player on the team.”
Westrum is off to an extremely effective start for Minnesota, racing to the team lead in goals (five) and points (10) in four games.
After scoring two goals against Notre Dame to open the season, Westrum earned WCHA player of the week honors. A more revealing statistic is zero, as in zero penalties charged to Westrum in a chippy game featuring 41 combined trips to the box.
“We need Erik on the ice,” coach Don Lucia said. “Its not a good trade for Erik to be in the box with somebody else.”
Which isn’t to say Westrum has turned away from the dark side completely. He is still a dichotomy, still the venom and the antidote.
A penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct followed Westrum’s show of composure against Bemidji. Future crashers of the crease be warned — Westrum is watching.
“If a guy is coming onto our goalie too strong, I want to be the first guy in there to rip his helmet off and make sure he’s never in there again,” Westrum said.
Raised in maroon and gold by his father Patrick — a Gophers team captain in 1969-70 — Westrum’s captaincy reminds him of two things; the need to make an impact, and the difficulties of leading his team from the penalty box.
“I don’t want my team thinking I’m out of control,” Westrum said. “The team is on my shoulders. They’re going to follow me, and I like that pressure.”
Westrum continues to play with passion and pride, making waves but no longer capsizing his own boat in the process.
“In the past, Erik’s probably been his own worst enemy at times and has paid the consequences,” Gwozdecky said. “But through those experiences he has learned, and is a better player for it.”
David La Vaque covers hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]