Holmstrom brothers travel far, work hard for shot at college, pro hockey

Ben Holmstrom, shown playing for the Adirondack Phantoms of the American Hockey League, is only the second Colorado Springs native to play in the NHL.   COURTESY ADIRONDACK PHANTOMS

Here is my feature that appeared in Friday’s issue of the Woodmen Edition newspaper …

It may be across the country from their family, but Woodmen Edition area natives Ben and Josh Holmstrom are happy they chose to play NCAA Division I men’s hockey for UMass Lowell.

Ben took advantage of his four years to develop a promising professional career which young brother Josh hopes to emulate.

After fielding some offers from other schools, a season-ending knee injury left only the River Hawks interested in offering Ben a full-ride athletic scholarship.

“That made it an easy choice,” he said.

It proved to be the right one for Ben, 25, who served as a three-year captain for the River Hawks, before graduating and moving on to the professional ranks. That journey paid off with seven games with the Philadelphia Flyers spread out over the last two seasons, making him only the second Colorado Springs native to reach the NHL.

Former North Dakota standout defenseman David Hale was the first from the Springs to reach the bigs but has since retired. Ben and Hale played in what is now the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association and its club team, the Pikes Peak Miners, while Josh, 23, played with the Colorado Rampage and Denver-area Colorado Thunderbirds. The brothers went on to play for the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Stampede of the Junior A United States Hockey League before moving up to Lowell.

“He’s a guy I was always looking up to,” Ben said. “I got to play against him in his final year in (American Hockey League) Binghamton. To be only the second player from Colorado Springs to make (the NHL) is something I take a lot of pride in.”

“We’re all very proud of what he accomplished,” said Josh, a 2008 Doherty High School graduate, who followed his brother out to Lowell, after finding the school to be the right fit.  “It’s a great hockey program and a phenomenal school.”

Both players continue to work hard and improve as much as they can, taking advantage of playing in what they consider the toughest hockey leagues in Division I; Hockey East, which includes Boston College, winners of three of the last five national championships, and Boston University, which won in 2009.

“Certainly one of the selling points for Lowell is being in Hockey East,” Ben said. “It is a high level and I had a lot of opportunity to play as a freshman and sophomore. It definitely prepared me while I got bigger and stronger (in four years).”

But little prepared him for the day he got the call from the Flyers the morning of March 3, 2011 and had to travel from upstate New York to Philadelphia for a game that night after two players were too sick to play.

“That was a whirlwind, driving five hours to play in front of 17,000 fans that night,” he said. “I had a lot of excitement and nerves.  The captain took aside me and told me to make sure to enjoy it because playing your first NHL game can never be duplicated. I did enjoy it.”

He got in two NHL games during the 2010-11 campaign and another five last season.

“I played with a little more confidence and with more comfort being around the guys,” he said. “It’s still a learning process.”

UMass Lowell junior forward Josh Holmstrom celebrated his goal against Miami (Ohio) during last spring’s NCAA tournament. COURTESY UMASS LOWELL ATHLETICS

Josh is on his way to a professional career as well, serving as an assistant captain as a junior, garnering all-league academic honors (3.6 grade point average) and recording the primary assist on the game-winning goal at No. 19 Colorado College last weekend.

“Josh Holmstrom brings an intensity to each and every game whether we’re playing at home or on the road,” said River Hawks head coach Norm Bazin, who spent several years as an assistant at CC. “He is someone who continues to improve and develop his skills and he will be counted upon to contribute offensively.”

Josh is enjoying being part of the proud program’s resurgence. The River Hawks surprised most of the experts by making the NCAA Tournament last spring in Bazin’s first season. They are a preseason pick to place second this season behind BC.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “The key for us will be to keep working harder and getting better each day.”

It’s that kind of attitude that helped Ben go from a junior player with a knee injury to the NHL and his second year as captain for the American Hockey League’s Adirondack Phantoms, only a step below the Flyers. If the NHL lockout ends, the 2009-10 Hockey East Best Defensive Forward Award-winner will likely be a quick call-up to Philadelphia.

“I will never be a 40-goal scorer in the NHL,” Ben said. “I need to play my game, which is being good on faceoffs, on defense and finishing my checks. If I can do that and be consistent, I could have a good career.”

It’s an example Josh plans to follow to the pros just as he did when he took up ice hockey as a youngster  watching his older brother play in Colorado Springs.

“It’s great motivation for me,” Josh said. “He’s always pushing me and I am always pushing him. He has had a great hockey career. I just need to keep working and improving and hope mine goes as well.”

CC picked 7th, Thorimbert shares goalie honor in WCHA media poll

Compiled and written by Bruce Ciskie, KZIO Radio/Bulldog Radio Network …

A year after surprising many by winning the WCHA’s MacNaughton Cup Championship, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are a nearly-unanimous pick of WCHA media to win the league. The annual 94X WCHA Preseason Media Poll, released Wednesday, shows the Gophers easily outdistancing the rest of the league.

A panel of 25 members of the WCHA media voted on a predicted order of finish, along with a handful of individual honors.

Minnesota received a whopping 24 of 25 first-place votes. Defending WCHA playoff champion North Dakota had the other first-place vote and finished a distant second. Denver came in third, followed by Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth. St. Cloud State claimed the final “home-ice” position in the preseason balloting.

Minnesota junior forward Nick Bjugstad, pictured, was a runaway choice for the Preseason Player of the Year. He also anchors the media’s second annual Preseason All-WCHA Team, where he is joined at forward by Wisconsin junior Mark Zengerle and St. Cloud State senior Ben Hanowski. The defensemen on the team are Denver’s Joey LaLeggia and Nick Jensen of St. Cloud State. Sam Brittain of Denver and Josh Thorimbert of Colorado College tied for the goaltending nod.

For the second straight year, the media chose North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi as Preseason Rookie of the Year. Grimaldi took a redshirt after an injury-ravaged season, and he is again eligible for rookie honors.

Teams were scored under a standard system of 12 points for a first-place vote, 11 for second, and so on. The number listed with each team is the number of points that team averaged per vote.

94X WCHA PRESEASON MEDIA POLL

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Minnesota (24 first place votes) … 11.92 poll average

2. North Dakota (1) … 10.76

3. Denver … 9.92

4. Wisconsin … 7.8

5. Minnesota Duluth … 6.88

6. St. Cloud State … 6.84

7. Colorado College … 6.08

8. Nebraska Omaha … 5.48

9. Michigan Tech … 5.2

10. Minnesota State … 3.6

11. Bemidji State … 2.48

12. Alaska Anchorage … 1.04

PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Nick Bjugstad, forward, Minnesota (16 votes)

Others receiving more than one vote: Erik Haula, forward, Minnesota (4); Mark Zengerle, forward, Wisconsin (3)

PRESEASON ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Rocco Grimaldi, forward, North Dakota (8 1/2 votes)

Others receiving more than one vote: Nic Kerdiles, forward, Wisconsin (5); Jordan Schmaltz, defenseman, North Dakota (2 1/2); Brady Skjei, defenseman, Minnesota (2); Andy Welinski, defenseman, Minnesota Duluth (2)

PRESEASON ALL-WCHA TEAM

Forwards

Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota (20 votes); Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin (17); Ben Hanowski, St. Cloud State (8)

Others receiving more than one vote: Danny Kristo, North Dakota (7); Erik Haula, Minnesota (6); Rylan Schwartz, Colorado College (5); Corban Knight, North Dakota (3)

Defensemen

Joey LaLeggia, Denver (20 votes); Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State (9)

Others receiving more than one vote: Nate Schmidt, Minnesota (7); Wade Bergman, Minnesota Duluth (3)

Goalie

Sam Brittain, Denver and Josh Thorimbert, Colorado College (7 1/2 votes each)

Others receiving more than one vote: Juho Olkinuora, Denver (3), Joel Rumpel, Wisconsin (2)

The following media members took part in the 94X Preseason Media Poll:  David Ahlers, KKAR Radio/University of Nebraska-Omaha; Stephen Anderson, Daily Mining Gazette; Andy Baggot, Wisconsin State Journal; Tyler Buckentine, USCHO.com; Mike Chambers, Denver Post; Bruce Ciskie, KZIO Radio/Bulldog Radio Network; Chris Dilks, Western College Hockey; Shane Frederick, Mankato Free Press; John Gilbert, WCHA.com; Kurt Haider, KENI Radio; Mick Hatten, St. Cloud Times; Dirk Hembroff, WKMJ Radio; Jack Hittinger, Bemidji Pioneer; Ken Landau, 103.9 FM The Eagle Radio; Don Lyons, Leighton Broadcasting/St. Cloud; Todd Milewski, USCHO.com; Dan Myers, Minnesota Hockey Magazine; Jess Myers, 1500ESPN.com; Joe Paisley, Colorado Springs/Colorado College; Kevin Pates, Duluth News Tribune; Chris Peters, United States of Hockey; Brian Posick, WIBA Radio/Badger Radio Network; Chad Purcell, Omaha World Herald; Brad Schlossman, Grand Forks Herald; Jay Stickney, 102.3 ESPN Radio.

CS native Holmstrom signs two-way deal with Flyers

Colorado Springs native Ben Holmstrom, a former UMass-Lowell standout, signed a two-way deal with the Flyers organization for one year worth $550,000 if he plays the entire season in the NHL and $105,000 in the AHL.

Holmstrom, 25, played five games with the Flyers as an injury call-up last season. In 67 games with the Adirondack Phantoms, Holmstrom scored 15 goals and 26 assists while compiling 134 penalty minutes. He was named Phantoms captain prior to last season and is a solid depth forward at the NHL level.

The contract comes after his two-year entry level free agent contract, signed with the organization in 2010. Holmstrom played at UMass-Lowell for four seasons before joining the organization. He is often a linemate  of former Tigers captain Mike Testwuide, who also signed a two-way deal recently with Philadelphia. They played together on the Pikes Peak Miners as youth players.

Pine Creek grad assumes big leadership role at Penn State

Pine Creek High School graduate Taylor Gross received a huge honor and an equally large responsibility last week when she was named as the first captain of the new NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey program at Penn State.

“Even if I was not captain, I would still need to be a leader because of my Division I experience on a team with a lot of freshmen,” she said. “But, I think we will surprise some people. We will be better than most people will expect.”

Her coach is confident too as he builds a program that will take on the likes of Syracuse and women’s national power Mercyhurst in the College Hockey America conference this October.

“Taylor is absolutely the ideal person to lead this team. She has significant experience and success at the Division I level, and has demonstrated the commitment to Penn State’s academic and athletic values in her time here already,” said Nittany Lions head coach Josh Brandwene. “She will be a tremendous leader for our program and a great mentor to our many young student-athletes.”

The 2010 Eagles graduate played on PSU’s club team this past spring semester after playing a season and a half for Hockey East member Connecticut. She appeared in 46 games during her UConn career and totaled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists). The Colorado Springs native was the team’s 2010-11 Rookie of the Year.

She will lead 18 freshmen on a 25-player roster that includes a couple holdovers from the previous club squad. Women’s club hockey is a step down from Division III programs, which are below D-I. There is no Division II.

Gross partnered up with two fellow juniors and UConn transfers to give the club team their top scoring line despite playing only half a season. The forward did her best to contribute on the ice without overstepping her role as a newcomer in the locker room.

“I tried to be a leader but without getting in the way of the older club players who had been here for years,” the biology major said. “I stayed positive.”

Excitement is building for hockey in Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley, she said. The women will share a state-of-the-art arena when it opens in 2013 with the men’s team, which is coached by former Colorado College standout Guy Gadowsky. Terry Pegula, owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, donated $88 million for the Pegula Ice Arena and to bank roll the two programs.

The creation of the men’s program started a conference shuffle in Division I hockey that prompted CC to become one of the charter members of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which is headquartered near the Broadmoor Hotel.

Gross is one of three Colorado Springs women set to play Division I hockey this winter including Rampart graduate Molli Mott, a standout forward for St. Cloud State, and defenseman Kristen Jakubowski, a former Cheyenne Mountain High School student in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute program. A fourth area player, former Minnesota captain and forward Emily West (Pine Creek), graduated in May after scoring the game-winner in the NCAA championship game.

Gross played with Mott on the Sabercats, a local Tier II high school team, and on the Tier I club Colorado Selects of Denver with Mott and West. Gross played against boys in the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association until age 12, when her small frame – she is listed at 5-foot-1 as a college junior – led her to focus on girls’ leagues. Playing against the bigger boys certainly helped her development as a player in a physical sport, she said.

Her goal of obtaining a Division I scholarship was realized, but she soon grew tired of UConn, considered moving to St. Cloud State,  and then transferred to PSU over Christmas because of its strong academics and athletics. Because it was only a club, Gross could transfer to Penn State without having to sit out a season.

Now she is ready to lay the foundation of a new program with big-time resources and TV exposure. The men’s and women’s programs have the potential to become national powers.

“I am excited to be at Penn State,” she said. “We have a lot of good leaders among the returning club players and the (incoming) freshmen. Everyone will have to play a large role. My job is to make the freshmen feel welcome and build team unity. If we can do that, we will surprise some people who may be underestimating us.”

Saturday reading: AHL and ECHL playoffs, Crabb, coaches meetings, Air Force schedule, Penn State arena, Knight injury, DU captains

Former Tiger captain Nick Dineen showed off what he can do, especially on face-offs and down low, during his short amateur tryout with the ECHL's Elmira Jackals.

Former Tiger Nick Dineen’s first pro season is over. The Eastern No. 1 seed Elmira Jackals lost to No. 5 Florida 2-1  Friday night and the best-of-seven ECHL playoff series 4-1.

Elmira had led the series 1-0 on Dineen’s game-winner in Game 1. Dineen is now a free agent. I would expect him sign an AHL contract this summer.

Alaska, which includes Tim Hall and Brian Swanson, now leads Stockton, which plays Ryan Lowery, 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. Game 5 is Saturday night in California.

Gabe Guentzel played in his first pro playoff game, a 3-2 loss for Syracuse. David Civitarese was a scratch for Hershey in its 3-1 loss. Kris Fredheim and Chad Rau’s No. 8 seed Aeros are down 2-0 in their series against Oklahoma City while Abbotsford, led by Brian Connelly, cruised past Milwaukee.

Colorado Springs’ Jeff Dimmen, a former Maine standout defenseman, is playing for the powerful Norfolk Admirals squad, which won its pro-hockey record 29th game in a row on Friday, a mark that is 11 games longer than any other winning streak ever recorded in any league since hockey was professionalized in 1904. CC fans may remember him for scoring the game-winner against the Tigers in the Florida College Classic during December 2008.

Joey Crabb received a respectable grade from the Toronto beat writer for his best NHL season.

This week’s national coaches’ meeting will have plenty of issues to discuss, including half-shields and the new conference alignments.

Construction on the new ice hockey arena for Penn State, which begins play as a Division I independent this October, began officially on Friday with a groundbreaking ceremony. Coach Guy Gadowsky, a CC alumnus, and two PSU players are interviewed in these videos.

Alaska-Anchorage announced its 2012-13 schedule which will include a game against Air Force in the Kendall Classic in Anchorage Oct. 13. The Falcons take on Alaska-Fairbanks at 3:07 p.m. Mountain on Oct. 12.

North Dakota’s Corban Knight played the last three months of the season with a broken hand.

Denver announced that junior defenseman Paul Phillips, who was an assistant this past season, will be the captain of the 2012-13 Pioneers.  Colorado Springs’ Chris Knowlton won the most improved award and will be an assistant captain along with Shawn Ostrow and Nick Shore.

Monday reading: Weekend reviews, Pairwise, polls and pros

Former CC captain Mike Testwuide, left, defends during an AHL game against the Albany Devils on Saturday.

Minnesota-Duluth remains No. 1 in the USCHO poll, but Minnesota moved up to No. 2 and gained considerable ground in the rankings. Idle Colorado College moved up from No. 12 to No. 11 while this weekend’s foe, Denver, went from No. 15 to No. 13.

CC dropped from No. 10 to No. 11 in the USA Today/ USA Hockey rankings. Denver went from No. 15 to No. 13 while the Gophers are the new No. 1 just ahead of Duluth.

The Tigers remained at No. 11 in the Inside College Hockey power rankings while Denver moved up to No. 9. Duluth is No. 1 and Minnesota second.

More importantly, the Tigers are No. 17 in the latest Pairwise rankings, meaning they would fall two spots shy of the making the NCAAs (No. 16 goes to Atlantic playoff champ).

Suddenly No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth is a bit more anxious about heading to face Alaska Anchorage, which has lost seven in a row since a road win at CC in December.

Here’s a look back at Minnesota’s home-and-home sweep of St. Cloud State.

Former Bemidji State standout Matt Read, a rookie of the year candidate, and Colorado Springs native Ben Holmstrom have ties dating back to childhood with the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association and now with the Flyers.

Former Tiger Joey Crabb gets some love from his hometown newspaper.

Here’s why Brian Connelly was traded by Chicago to the Calgary organization. His chances of making his NHL debut look much improved.

MSU Mankato goalie Phil Cook has a .945 saves percentage in his last six starts. The purple Mavs could be a tough out by playoff time if he stays hot.

Future NCHC rivals Miami and Western Michigan are tied for second in the CCHA behind surprising Ferris State.

Pine Creek grad West leads Gopher women’s comeback

Pine Creek High School graduate Emily West of Colorado Springs scored twice in four minutes in the third to spark the No. 2 Minnesota women to a 3-2 home win over Bemidji State on Friday.

The Gopher senior co-captain got the equalizer nine minutes into the third period on a power play score followed by an unassisted goal exactly four minutes later.

According to Minnesota sports information, it was West’s 10th goal of the season, and second game-winner this season. It marked the eighth multiple-goal game in her college career and tied her personal record for goals in a game.