Change takes center ice with new name, new coach at North Dakota

Gage Ausmus (Courtesy UND Athletics)

If you are passing through North Dakota and are looking for conversation here’s a little phrase to get you started — or one to avoid:

“What’s in a name?”

Now, depending on who you ask the answer is everything, too much or not needed.

The answer will never be “nothing at all.”

The phrase has been a lightning rod since the NCAA forced the University of North Dakota to retire its “Fighting Sioux” nickname in 2012 in an effort to become more politically correct. Airwaves and newspapers are filled daily with letters to the editor and front-page stories about the handling of the new nickname process. The Facebook page “No More Sioux = No More Donations” has more than 2,600 likes. When the school asked for suggestions for a new nickname more than 1,100 unique names were given but the most popular: Fighting Sioux or nothing at all.

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Outgoing president Robert Kelley has been vilified as an outsider who didn’t understand the Sioux culture and what the nickname means to the area.

By Halloween, UND will begin a new chapter as either the Sundogs, Fighting Hawks, NoDaks, Roughriders or North Stars. Those are the five names on the ballot for student, alumni, faculty and staff voting Oct. 19-23. No write-ins allowed. The name with 51% of the vote will be chosen. (What is your preference? Vote below.)

The names haven’t been met with overwhelming enthusiasm and those fighting to keep the Sioux nickname haven’t given up. Former Bismarck, N.D., Mayor Marlan “Hawk” Haakanson went so far as to register trade names Fighting Hawks, NoDaks and North Stars with the North Dakota Secretary of State in order to prevent UND from using them, the Bismarck Tribune reported on Sept. 14.

“This is the biggest story in our school for all athletics and it is kind of taking over what goes on a little bit,” said UND captain and junior defenseman Gage Ausmus. “But it is an important deal. It is the program’s future … it kind of sucks for current athletes.”

Ausmus, who grew up in East Grand Forks watching UND hockey games, addressed the nickname change last week at the NCHC media day held at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

“There are a couple (of choices) that are a lot worse than the others,” he said. “North Stars is Minnesota hockey. The only thing I can think of is NoDak on the jersey, like a shorter version of North Dakota.

“To be honest it’s going to be hard for fans and everyone involved to move on this quick. It is still a little raw. A couple of more years to think about the nickname wouldn’t hurt, but obviously they are trying to push it through right away so I don’t know what it should be.”

Both Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, who played for UND from 1983-86, and Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais, who led UND to national titles in 1997 and 2000, said they understand it is time for UND to move on. But it’s not easy.

“I know (UND) as one thing,” Sandelin said, shaking his head. “I will always know it as one nickname. I don’t think anything different (because of the upcoming vote). To true North Dakota fans it is always going to be one thing, no matter what it is. I wish it would have never changed, but that’s the way it is.”

Sandelin enters his 16th season with the Bulldogs, who return 21 lettermen and are the overwhelming pick of the NCHC coaches to be win the league title.

Blais still has strong ties to the area and recruited Minot, N.D., native Mason Morelli, one of 10 incoming freshmen. He believes UND’s fanbase is grudgingly coming to a consensus on the new name.

“I kind of think it might be NoDaks,” he said. “It’s a tough spot … I know they’ll change it. No matter if it’s NoDaks or Sundogs or Roughriders or whatever it may be, it is still (not) going to take away from the original Fighting Sioux name.”

Larry Bach, a 1987 UND graduate now living in Minneapolis, looked at the potential names on the ballot and said all have flaws. “Each one of these can be torn down if that’s the concern,” he said. “I mean, how many people outside of North Dakota and maybe Alaska know what a Sundog is?” (Sundogs occur when it is freezing cold, giving the illusion of spots around the sun).

UND coach Brad Berry wouldn’t even mention the former nickname when asked to broach the subject at media day. The first-year head coach takes over for Dave Hakstol, who led UND to seven Frozen Four appearances in 11 seasons before moving on to coach the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers this season. Berry has bigger issues such as doing the one thing Hakstol’s teams didn’t: win a national title. Last year both UND and UNO lost in the Frozen Four semifinals.

“Whatever that nickname or new logo we have it will be a part of our culture going forward,” Berry said. “We have a great tradition and history from before and we are going to have another coming in in the next few weeks.”

Berry’s main concern is replacing Zane McIntyre, a Hobey Baker finalist and Mike Richter award-winner for top goalie. McIntyre left after his record-setting junior season to join the Boston Bruins. Last season he led the nation with 29 wins, second in school history.

UND also must replace 45% of its scoring, but it landed five freshmen regarded as top-25 recruits, including Brock Boeser, taken 23rd overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the this year’s NHL Draft. Another NCHC recruit drafted in the first round was Miami (Ohio) freshman forward Jack Roslovic (25th to the Winnipeg Jets).

Whatever the new nickname, it will take center stage next season when UND plays Hockey East power Boston College on Dec. 3, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The teams, who have combined for 12 national titles and 45 NCAA Frozen Four appearances, are 11-11-1 against each other.

The game is billed as the “College Hockey Showdown.” The name works.

Which nickname do you prefer for the University of North Dakota?

  • Other (41%, 170 Votes)
  • Fighting Hawks (17%, 69 Votes)
  • NoDaks (13%, 55 Votes)
  • Roughriders (13%, 55 Votes)
  • North Stars (9%, 36 Votes)
  • Sundogs (7%, 28 Votes)

Total Voters: 413

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Above: North Dakota’s Gage Ausmus said the upcoming nickname change at UND has left emotions raw for fans. (Courtesy UND Athletics)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu