ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — The United States Hockey League is one of the top junior leagues in North America, and two Northstar Christian Academy hockey players are getting a shot to make a roster.
Forward Ben Strinden was playing video games in his hometown of Fargo with his friends when his mom told him that the Muskegon Lumberjacks in Michigan took him in the sixth round of the USHL Draft. Strinden is the first NCA hockey player selected in the program’s two-year history.
“I was trying not to worry about it too much,” Strinden said. “My mom called up to me and said, ‘Ben, you’re going to Muskegon.’ It was kind of a surprise, but I’m honored to be the first one picked from Northstar, and I’m excited to get to work.”
One of the friends Strinden was gaming with was the next Knight drafted. Alexandria’s own Jakob Stender went off the board in the 14th round to the Fargo Force.
“It was an exciting day for me,” Stender said. “It was a long wait, but once I saw my name on the list, it was a relief. I thought to myself, ‘It’s go time.’ Their coach called me the next day and told me to get ready for main camp.”
Even though Stender and Strinden got drafted, the hard part is yet to come. Following the draft, all selected players go to their team’s main camp tryout, where they battle it out with other aspiring players. The amount of open spots on the team depends on how many people left the program the year before.
“Right now, I’m really fortunate that I get to skate three or four times a week up here in Fargo,” Strinden said. “I’m working on building muscle because wherever I go next, it’s going to be faster and more physical. I’ve already gained about 10 pounds of muscle in quarantine. Overall, I’m just trying to get better heading into camp in a couple of months.”
While Strinden can find ice time, the same luxuries weren’t available for all prospects. Because of the shutdown, Stender’s ice time the last two months was limited. Now that the shutdown is over, Stender is looking forward to lacing up the skates again.
“The ice should be ready to use on May 18 at Northstar,” Stender said. “I know I have to work my tail off if I want to earn a spot. I need to take these next couple of months to train hard and, hopefully, take a step above everyone else. I want to play hard, smart and physical, and hope that the coaches like what they see.”
When Stender played his first game for the Knights two seasons ago, he was a forward. By the time he left, he successfully made the switch to defense.
“By no means was it an easy transition,” he said. “I had a little bit of defense in my background from when I was growing up, but it was a challenge. I remember that first weekend, I played defense and I was not really sure what I was doing. Honestly, the first month was like that.”
After adjusting to his new role, he showed the coaching staff how versatile he is on both ends of the ice.
“I learned a lot of things from our coaches,” Stender said. “One of the things they told me that stuck was you don’t have to skate backward all the time. It sounds simple, but it clicked for me. I figured out how to take stuff from the offensive part of my game and use it when I play defense. I wouldn’t be close to where I am today without my coaches.”
Even after he made the switch, Stender wasn’t sure about the future.
“Throughout the whole season, I was always second-guessing myself. I kept wondering if I was still a forward,” Stender said. “I got the opportunity to move back to forward for a game this year when we had some kids sick or hurt. I tell you what, that was when I knew for sure that I was a defenseman.”
Good teammates, better friends
Both Strinden and Stender are forgoing their senior years of eligibility at Northstar for junior hockey.
If they don’t make their respective USHL teams, both of them have tenders to fall back on in the North American Hockey League. Strinden agreed to terms with the Minot Minotauros, while Stender’s option is to go to Aberdeen and play for the Wings.
Both of them know what the landscape is like at a main camp. While this is their first time attending as draftees, they have skated with other players as undrafted prospects in years past.
“I’ve been to Fargo’s the last couple of summers,” Strinden said. “I know what to expect, but the mindset is a little different this year since I’m trying to make the team. When I went to main camps in the past, I never had the mindset to make it. I was already planning on going back to Northstar. Even at these main camps, there’s a lot of colleges there looking at us too, so it’s going to be exciting.”
Stender doesn’t just think of Strinden as a good hockey player, but as a great friend. He’s confident that Strinden will turn some heads in the coming months.
“He’s one of my best friends,” Stender said. “He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met in my life, and one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met. I was proud to call him one of my captains. As a player, he uses his body well and his shot is crazy. I always know I can count on him as a teammate and a friend.”
For Strinden, the feeling is mutual.
“Stendy is a great kid, and I love him to death,” Strinden said. “He’s always smiling, and it really helped to have him in practice. He pushed me, and it got competitive sometimes, but that’s how you get better. I’m excited to see what he can do in his hockey career.”