Old-fashioned youngster Hagemo setting an example for older guys

Coach Don Lucia calls 18-year-old Nate Hagemo one of his two best defensemen.

Ben Goessling

At 18 years, two months and one day, Minnesota men’s hockey defenseman Nate Hagemo is easily the youngest player on the Gophers. And by his own admission, he’s a little immature.

But once game day rolls around, Hagemo transforms into something else. And he doesn’t rely on a steady dose of hard rock tunes to whip himself into a frenzy, as you might expect.

Actually, the self-described goof-off meditates.

“I close my eyes and visualize things,” Hagemo said. “I’ve got some rituals I go through, just visualizing corner battles.”

And the top-ranked Gophers’ youngest player, through a couple of age-old techniques, changes into one of their angriest.

“I just look at him before games and shake my head sometimes,” said pairmate and team captain Judd Stevens. “But Nate’s a pretty intense kid. Going into the corner against a bigger guy and always coming out with the puck, that’s fun to watch.”

So far, nobody is questioning Hagemo’s methods. Just 12 games into his freshman season, Hagemo might be the Gophers’ best defender.

The Edina, Minn., native, who is tied for second among Minnesota (11-4-0, 7-3-0 WCHA) blueliners and fourth on the team with a plus/minus ratio of plus-7, has made his mark with a series of jaw-dropping backchecks and timely plays that few notice.

USA Hockey has taken note, naming Hagemo (with fellow freshman defenseman Alex Goligoski) to the U.S. Junior National Team that will compete in the world championships in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn., from Dec. 25-Jan. 4.

And even though the Gophers boast a bevy of defensemen who can move the puck and score, Hagemo has stood out as much as any of them.

“He’s right there. He and Chris Harrington are our two best defenders. That’s unusual for somebody who just turned 18,” coach Don Lucia said. “He goes in and he eliminates people. He’s as fast a skater as we’ve had here in a long time. I don’t know who would be faster – him or (former Gophers forward Troy) Riddle, but I think Hagemo could give Riddle a run for his money.”

The freshman showed off his wheels during the College Hockey Showcase just his second weekend back after a neck injury. In the first period of Minnesota’s 5-0 win over Michigan State Nov. 27, Hagemo came in from across the ice and knocked the puck away from Tommy Goebel, who had a breakaway and a clear look at Kellen Briggs.

Later in that game, Hagemo moved the puck from his own blue line into the Spartans’ zone, to find Kris Chucko in the slot for the Gophers’ second goal.

And Saturday, with Minnesota holding a one-goal lead in the third period at Colorado College, Hagemo chased down a Colorado forward and derailed a breakaway attempt into the boards.

“It’s easier for me to just try and flatten my man so I don’t have to keep an eye on him,” Hagemo said. “I worked really hard in the weight room over the summer and the strides I’ve made I’ve really been able to notice on the ice – with my hitting and balance.”

But the 5-foot-11-inch Hagemo isn’t just surprising people with his physical prowess. He’s also making the kind of intelligent, game-changing plays that usually come from players with two or three more years’ experience.

For example, with Colorado College still trailing by a goal with 8:15 left in the third period Saturday, Colorado forward Brett Sterling looked to be in perfect position to scoop up a rebound in the slot and tie the game. But before the puck reached him, Hagemo tied up Sterling with a check and the puck skipped away.

“It’s little plays like that, as coaches and goalies and teammates, you appreciate,” Lucia said. “To box him out and not let a natural goal-scorer get at the puck, that was a big play in the game.”

Hagemo, who committed to Wisconsin at age 15 before spending two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., decided in November of 2003 he’d rather be close to home.

He signed a letter of intent with Minnesota, arriving this fall as an unexpected coup in a 10-man freshman class.

“I feel like I jumped into (the Wisconsin commitment) when I think about it,” Hagemo said. “It was the only place I looked at, and after I’d been away from home for two years, Minnesota looked pretty good. And it ended up working out.”

Two months into his freshman season and the first year of his adult life, Hagemo is growing up just fine.

“He’s as passionate about the game of hockey as anybody I’ve ever coached,” Lucia said. “He’s come in as a man.”