UND star takes the long way home

by Michael Rand

On the surface, Jason Blake’s story looks typical — just another local boy does good for the home team type of thing.
Blake, a sophomore on the North Dakota hockey team, lived in Grand Forks, N.D., the location of his current school, until he was 12 years old. And now he’s a force for the undefeated Sioux, who will face the Gophers tonight and Saturday at Mariucci Arena.
But his path to the school he always wanted to play for hardly followed a straight line. Actually, the route he followed was about as regular as a flight from Chicago to Boston making a stop in Miami.
After leaving Grand Forks, Blake went to Moorhead, Minn., a city located 75 miles south of his old home but on the other side of the border.
At Moorhead High School, Blake helped transform a mediocre hockey program into a state power. After graduating in 1992, Blake played the next two years in Iowa with Waterloo of the USHL — a stint he hoped would earn him a Division I scholarship.
Several schools were interested in Blake, but only Ferris State, a CCHA team located in Michigan, was willing to give him a full scholarship.
So Blake’s decision was basically made for him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very good one.
“I knew a lot of people that had gone to Ferris, and they told me it was a good program and a fun place,” Blake said.
Then he added the kicker: “They lied.”
The Bulldogs had a dismal start to their 1994-95 season, and Blake went back to Moorhead for Christmas break frustrated.
“To them, losing is getting to be a tradition,” he said.
Ferris State played at North Dakota later that season, and Blake was impressed with the way the program was being run by new Sioux coach Dean Blais.
After that series, Blake was quoted in a newspaper as saying he made a mistake by going to Ferris State. A few days later, he announced his first year with the Bulldogs would also be his last.
Potential suitors began popping up immediately, including North Dakota and Minnesota. Because of his loyalties to UND, the Sioux obviously had the inside track. But a Gophers contingency led by current junior Ryan Kraft — a friend of Blake’s and a former teammate at Moorhead — also entered Blake’s mind.
In the end, however, the home town won.
“I was flattered to have them call me,” Blake said. “It was a good situation there, but it just seemed like a better one at North Dakota.”
Kraft even tried talking Blake out of his decision when he saw him in Moorhead during the 1995 summer break, but it was to no avail.
Gophers assistant Mike Guentzel, who saw Blake play while he was a coach at Omaha of the USHL, said he was disappointed but not surprised that Blake chose UND.
“When I saw him (in the USHL) he was hell on wheels,” Guentzel said. “But he looked like he was set on North Dakota from the start.”
Under NCAA rules, Blake had to sit out last season after transferring to UND.
“It was tough to sit out and watch my teammates play from the stands,” he said.
This season — more than four years after graduating from high school and almost a decade after leaving Grand Forks — Blake finally had a chance to fulfill his dream of playing for UND.
Quite simply, he said, “I’m having a great time now.”
It would be tough for him not to be having fun this season.
The Sioux (6-0-0) have outscored their opponents 28-12 heading into this weekend’s series at Minnesota (3-3). Blake’s nine points are second in the WCHA behind linemate Dave Hoogsteen.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Kraft, who will line up against his former teammate for the first time this weekend. “He’s one of the most explosive players I’ve ever played with.”
As Blake got ready for his team’s most important series of the year, he said he was filled with a combination of nervousness and excitement.
“They’ve been good for like the last 20 or 30 million years. This is a true test for us,” Blake said. “I’ve played against a lot of these guys in high school and in juniors. I’m nervous, but everything should be fine.”
Slap shot
Brett Abrahamson will play defense Friday night in place of Brian LaFleur, who was suspended for one game because of his fight with Wisconsin’s Luke Gruden last weekend.