Escapee…

In John Marks’ mind, none of this makes any sense.

The Fargo Force head coach said Saturday he was surprised defenseman and now-former team captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) only went in the fifth round of the NHL Draft of Saturday.

“It couldn’t have been something off-ice,” Marks said.

Cooper was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks with the 127th pick in the draft, one spot below teammate and forward Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) was taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Marks said he was happy the Force had three players – Cooper, Toninato and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan) – were all drafted tying a franchise record of three players taken in the draft. Hargrove was taken in the seventh round by the Boston Bruins.

Still, it left Marks wondering why teams didn’t take Cooper in the earlier rounds.

“He’s a 4.0 student, did really well from school, did really well away from school too,” Marks said. “He has everything you’d want in a kid.”

Cooper said Saturday he was projected to go anywhere from the third to the seventh round. He said going in the fifth round met that projection.

Though Cooper did fall within those parameters, going in the fifth round did raise some eyebrows considering Chicago Steel defenseman Jaccob Slavin (Colorado College) was taken towards the end of the fourth round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

By comparison, Cooper was a bit more well-known than Slavin coming to the draft.

Cooper’s name might have carried more notoriety given he has been talked about since he came into the league at 15. He also had been talked about as one of three USHL players to watch last April for the 2012 NHL Draft by NHL Central Scouting.

Yet Cooper’s offensive production wasn’t what some were considering. Cooper’s second season with the Force resulted in a 33-point season largely predicated on his ability to lead the rush, buzz the net and use a booming hit when needed to free the puck and create chances at the other end.

This past season saw a different version of Cooper. He was more of a stay-at-home defenseman. Cooper did get points, scoring 24, but those rushes which became synonymous with his game were not frequent. Cooper was still a second-team selection to the all-USHL team.

But choosing Slavin might not be all that surprising considering he had better numbers than Cooper.

Slavin was a integral part of the revival that was the Chicago Steel’s season. The Steel won nine games in the 2010-11 season and bounced back this season to contend for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference before falling short.

At 6-2 and 170 pounds, he put up 30 (three goals, 27 assists) in 60 games for the Steel this season.

Marks was then quick to point out he believes Cooper could make the NHL, it just might not be as a defenseman.

“I could see him making the move to forward,” said Marks, who spent nine NHL seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. “That’s what I did. I was an All-American at defense my last two years of college and when I got to the Blackhawks they moved me to forward. Something like that could definitely happen.”

Freedom Bridge…

Weddings. Workouts. Whatever.

That’s an apt description of what life is like for the Fargo Force players eligible for the NHL Draft, which starts tonight. The Force could have eight players who could be taken in the draft.

If they were to be chosen, they would be selected on Saturday, which is the second day of the draft.

Forward Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) said Friday he was actually getting ready for his brother’s wedding, which is later today and extends into tomorrow with another family function.

“It is a big day for him and his future wife,” Farley said. “I haven’t looked at the draft.”

Farley said he’s spent the last few weeks staying busy. He recently graduated from Fargo South and went to Duluth for a campus orientation before returning to Illinois for his brother’s wedding.

He and his family will be at their lake house on Saturday so cell phone reception might not be the best. Either way, his brother will use his smartphone to check out the draft to see if Farley has been drafted.

Down the road from Farley in Illinois is defenseman Justin Wade (Notre Dame), who said he’ll be spending the day watching his little sister.

“It is going to be a normal day for me,” he said. “If I get a call it’ll be cool or I will look online. I am not going to do anything special.”

Wade, like Farley, recently graduated from Fargo South and has been trying to enjoy his summer.

Wade, who will return to the Force next season, said he’s just used the summer to workout and catch up with friends he hasn’t seen due to splitting time between Fargo and his home in Aurora, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) actually spend Friday morning working out instead of thinking about where he could be taken in the draft.

“Yeah, I gotta be in Omaha in the next few weeks and I want to be there in shape,” Cooper said. “I am more worried about what (UNO coach Dean) Blais is going to think than NHL scouts. Come on, it’s Blais. He’s Blais.”

Cooper pointed out how Blais worked as a coach and how he’d need to be at his best when he arrived into camp.

“Well, that’s the thing about him,” Cooper said. “He talks to you and he’s a great guy. Put it this way. He’s (Force coach John) Marks. That’s what I am excited about. He’s like Marks but a little bit more intense, all the time. Marks is fun.”

Forward Jay Dickman along with Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) are both in Pittsburgh for the draft.

For Dickman, it is his second year as an eligible player while Toninato, the god son of NHL Hall of Famer Brett Hull, is in his first year of eligiblity.

Toninato, who lives in Duluth, said his family was not impacted by flooding which has crippled the region. He and his family left Duluth and reached Pittsburgh on Thursday where they took in the Twins-Pirates game.

“You know what, I am definitely excited,” he said. “I have talked to quite a bit of teams and it is unbelievable.”

Both Dickman and Toninato will play with the Force next season.

Be Alright…

Despite having the chance to stay in his native Russia, forward Pavel Zykov will return to the Fargo Force next season.

Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said Zykov, who was taken in the second round of the KHL Amateur Draft earlier this month by Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the program which cultivated NHL star Evgeni Malkin.

“All we’ve heard is that he is still coming back,” Davis said of Zykov. “We haven’t heard anything different.”

The 6-1, 175-pound Zykov was a free agent signee by the Force about midway through the season after being spotted by Davis at a tournament in Chicago. He played 20 games with the Force scoring two points while adjusting to living in the United States for the first time.

Davis said it became apparent Zykov,17, was going to return to the Force given that he left all of his personal belongings in Fargo.

“I think he misses the food here too,” Davis joked. “He liked the American-style food like the fast food and he might be back even quicker and you see him at Hardee’s.”

Getting Zykov’s commitment for a return means the Force will have seven forwards from last season’s playoff team which suffered a consecutive second round exit from the Western Conference playoffs.

Davis said fellow Russian forward Stanislav Dzahkov would return while forward Nick Stoskopf would not be returning. Davis said Stoskopf has accepted a scholarship to play at Division III Wisconsin-Superior for next season.

Stoskopf, who was a high school free agent signee under former coach Jason Herter, played 65 games with the Force scoring 14 points and was a minus-19 including a team low minus-17 this season.

Davis added defenseman David Mead appears as if he is on his way out of the door as he’s trying out with other teams in the league along with being a first-round pick of the Wenatchee Wild in the NAHL.

“If I was a betting man, that’s a spot he’d end up,” Davis said about Mead going to the NAHL. “Bliss Littler is the head coach there and he has a good relationship with him because of their time in Omaha together. Looking up and down their roster, they need a guy like him.”

If Mead leaves, it gives the Force four returning defenseman for next season plus a number of options as the team could draw from its affiliates list, draft picks and potential free agents.

All Around The World…

Fargo Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said defenseman Victor Bjorkung (Maine) will play with the team next season.

Bjorkung, 19, was a late-round selection last month in the USHL Entry Draft.

“We just offered him last week and he’s coming for sure,” Davis said. “He had to work on getting his visa and stuff like that. He got everything in place and booked his plane tickets and he’s coming to play in our league. The rumors that he was looking at other options are pretty much all done.”

Bjorkung has spent three of his last four seasons playing with the Djurgarden program in his native Sweden. He also spent a season with Malmo. He played 42 games last season scoring 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) for the U-20 team. In the 2010-11 season, he split time between Djugarden’s U-18 Elite Team, the program’s U-18 Allsvenskan and one game in the Super Elite league.

Between the three leagues, he scored 27 points in 38 games. Altogether, he played in 120 games scoring 77 points during his time in Sweden.

Davis previously said leading up to the draft the team hadn’t heard about Bjorkung but kept hearing his name come up from various parties.

Those same parties told Davis that Bjorkung had accepted a scholarship to play at Maine but was also weighing options to play professionally back in Sweden. It is why the Force took him in the later rounds and it’s what Davis called taking a pick on a player whose still sorting over their future.

“He’s all set to come over and we spoke with his father,” Davis said. “Now they’re just trying to figure out what to bring over. I just told them to pack some warm clothes.”

Bjorkung has been described as a, “high-end, skilled defenseman” at the time the Force took him in the draft. The plan would be for Bjorkung to play on the power play, which was one of the best in the entire USHL last season.

Getting the 6-foot, 174-pound Bjorkung could also help make up for the losses the Force’s blueline have suffered this off-season. The Force were already losing Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) and potential second-round selection Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) to college for next season.

Shortly after training camp, the team lost Taylor Richart who accepted a scholarship from Miami (Ohio), where he will be playing next season.

It leaves the Force with at least four defensemen expected to return from last year’s team in Justin Wade (Notre Dame), Dominic Racobaldo, Neal Goff and Taylor Fleming. Defenseman David Mead’s future is still up in the air with the team which could leave another opening on the blueline.

The returning four defenseman plus Bjorkung and tender signee Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) give the Force at least six justified defensemen before heading into their pre-season camp which will begin in August.

Fancy Footwork…

For now, at least, it appears there could be some familiar names who have a shot at representing Team USA at one of the world’s most premier tournaments.

Recently former Fargo Force captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) and former teammate and current Western Michigan star Garrett Haar were invited to Team USA’s evaluation camp in August at Lake Placid, N.Y.

The list, which features more than 40 players, was released by USA Hockey this morning.

Cooper was part of a roster which featured a numerous amount of USHL based players while Haar was just one of quite a few players already playing college hockey to make the list.

What’s on the line for both Cooper and Haar is a chance at playing in the IIHF U-20 World Championships, which by all purposes is the largest and most premier amateur tournament in the world.

It also ranks as one of the more important tournaments in all of world hockey on any level.

The tournament has seen current NHL stars such as Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews make their mark and really announce themselves to a hockey world who may not have followed their previous hockey accomplishments.

Cooper, 18, just finished his third and final year with the Force having led the team to a second-round playoff appearance. He also stands a strong chance at being taken on Saturday at the NHL Draft.

Force coach John Marks, a former No. 1 selection back in the 1960s, recently told NHL.com he expects Cooper could go in the third round. Projections have called for Cooper to go anywhere between the second and fourth rounds

Cooper was invited to Team USA’s camp last season where he was among the youngest players to receive an invite. Though he was one of the first players to be cut, he described it as a good experience which prepared him for any future possible chances he’d have with the national team.

Haar, 18, just finished his first season at Western Michigan, where he helped the program win a conference title and have one of the best seasons in school history

It was this time a year ago when Haar started to gain more visibility. Following his first season in Fargo, Haar impressed in the playoffs and was taken by the Capitals in the seventh round of last season’s draft making him the only Force player to be taken.

Haar went into the Capitals evaluation camp where he was declared to by the “surprise of the camp” by general manager George McPhee. Haar was set to return to Fargo after decommitting from Northeastern, a day after he was drafted.

Weeks before the Force’s pre-season camp, he was offered a scholarship by Western Michigan.

Vitamins…

Today is the first day college coaches are able to call players born in 1996 and to no surprise, Mason Morelli has received quite a bit of interest.

Fargo Force assistant and director of player personnel Jesse Davis said this afternoon numerous college coaches asked for Morelli’s phone number so they could gauge his interest.

“It’s all across the board,” Davis said about the geographic range of schools interested in Morelli. “We had a lot of schools at our camp and from all different areas and we also had close to 50 college coaches at our tryouts. There have been WCHA schools, guys from out East and everyone else trying to get a hand in there to see where he is leaning. Is he Ivy League? Will he come out east? Will he play in the Big Ten? That’s why today is big for the college level and now they’ve seen his talent level and they want to see if they can get him in school.”

Davis declined to name specific schools when he was asked if the University of North Dakota did enquirer about Morelli. He said “it wasn’t a hidden secret” there is interest in Morelli.

Morelli will feature in the team’s plans next year having made what was certainly one of the biggest jumps of any player prior to the USHL Futures Draft a few months ago.

The Minot, N.D. native was on the Force’s radar and the team appeared to be set to take him without what could have been much opposition. It is until Morelli messed up those plans by scoring a hat trick in the opening game at the futures combine.

It resulted in his stock increasing and on draft day, the Force traded up to No. 3 to get him.

At 16 years old, he played both high school and junior hockey last season further showing he could be able to handle the demands that come with junior hockey.

Morelli has previously said he would like to play at UND given his grandfather, Reg, scored the game-winning goal in the team’s 1959 title season over Michigan State in the national championship game. His father also played at UND.

Davis said Morelli is one of the many 1996-born Force players colleges have called about today.

One thing Davis has reminded his players is that for now, it is interest and there should be no rush to make a decision.

“We tell them it is not a sprint right now,” he said. “That it is more of a marathon and you have to finish high school and take your time with it.”

Davis cited current forward Dave Gust (Ohio State) as an example.

Gust exploded onto the scene last season following a mid-year call up and his 30-point season resulted in the Force having a No. 1 line which helped them reach the second round of the playoffs.

Gust was a commodity throughout the season but took his time and committed to Ohio State just a few weeks ago.

“We’ve told our kids to do their homework,” he said. “And if they could get some visits in, that’s even better. It is their choice, not anyone else’s.”

Guns Are Drawn, Part II…

Tuesday was Part I of our interview with now-former Force captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha).

Cooper talked about the NHL Combine, the interviews he had with specific teams and how he managed to get it all done so he could return to Fargo for his high school graduation a day later.

In Part II, Cooper discusses the way the season went and what exactly went wrong in the Force’s playoff run which ended in the second round to the Lincoln Stars.

 

Q: Looking back, how would you describe the season?

Cooper: It was a good run. I was sitting with the coaches when they were chatting and Marksy said Lincoln was a worse match-up for us and Waterloo was a worse match up for Lincoln. We came together and played well and you cannot beat a team like Lincoln with a line-and-a half. That’s playoff hockey but look who showed up.The Guertler-Iafallo-Gust Line did really well and and surprisingly the Arentz-Brodzinski-Goff line did well. Then Zane, you knew he was going to show up. With the defense, myself, Wade, T-Bone, Willie, Roc all played hard and put in a lot of minutes. Fleming, who is a Swiss Army knife, did everything. We put him up at forward and then he went back to defense. We just didn’t have enough firepower. Lincoln has huge meatstick defensemen and they have a good goalie, two good lines who could put the puck in the net and there was not enough team toughness where as Waterloo, three lines, a good defensemen and on home ice can beat anyone wide. The guys who showed up held there own.

 

Q: What is your favorite memory from this past season?

A: I think we had a lot of laughs. Maybe (Cooper’s favorite moment was) just the life of the team when were on a nine-game winning streak, Coach was happy, we were happy and were just coming together and it was finally going well for us. Just the atmosphere. We had short, quick practices and everyone was having fun. Just seeing everyone together and no one was getting mad or fighting with each other and as a team, we were just happy and having fun playing hockey. Its what makes you want to play the sport. Going through rough patches and then having a winning streak. It was a relief off everyone’s shoulders and we were playing the way Marks, Byron and Jesse wanted us to play.

 

Q: Finally, what else have you been up to lately? Plus, where will you be during the NHL Draft and do you have anything special planned?

A: I went down to visit Omaha a couple weeks ago. It was whenever Nickelback was at the Fargodome. I got classes organized and visited the medical center and got everything down with my major, what route and I am still putting some pieces together. I think I’ll be in Fargo when draft is going on. I’ve thought about playing golf while it’s going on. I’ve told a few people I was probably going to have my phone off during the draft but my adviser told me it wasn’t a good idea in case a team wanted to call me and say they were drafting me.

Guns Are Drawn…

It’s a little slow this time of year and with it comes a chance to catch up with a few people.

Here’s Part I of an interview I did with Force defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), who is undergoing what might be one of the most important months of his life.

Cooper was at the NHL Combine in Toronto where he was poked and prodded for the upcoming NHL Draft, which is next Friday in Pittsburgh, Pa. Here’s what Cooper had to say about his time at the combine.

 

Q: What was the NHL Combine like in terms of the interviews and the physical workouts?

Cooper: You know the interviews were a little nerve-racking. Not like talking to scouts one-on-one. Tampa had two guys. Boston and New Jersey had 10 guys in there. You have to keep going. One question can screw you up. I didn’t have any weird questions. I had some relax conversations. Chicago was the most relaxed interview and it was a nice surprise from the other ones. I am a big question mark and I know teams don’t want to waste time with silly questions. They were pretty straight forward. It was nerve-racking because you don’t want to say anything stupid and show nervousness. I texted (Force assistant Byron Pool) and he said,  ‘Just be confident. That’s one of your biggest assets.’ That’s reassured me.”

Q: How did you think you did during the physical portion of the combine?

Cooper: Pretty good. I think I surprised guys for how big I am. Held my own for bench and push ups and I knew I wasn’t going to win the wingspan (Cooper is 5-9). Phil worked me and (forward Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth)) twice a week but it was not to stay in shape. We were missing key components and we did workouts to get you get ready for testing. Not the way you want to work out to get ready for the season. Did some bike, sit ups, bench explosive stuff with. Iafallo has Buffalo’s camp to go to. I was confident going into push ups and bench. I was disappointed in bench. You don’t want to say take it easy on bench or take it easy on push ups. You want to do good on push-ups. I did good. I thought I had 11 but I had 10 and that was disappointing. Results were on line and I looked through them and they don’t show unless you make Top 10. I was in Top 10 for push-pull. I was in the Top 10 for push per pound for my size. I was in Top 10 for the vertical with pause at the bottom. I did OK in the chest throw. That’s an awkward one and it helps if you have long arms. Bike, I was surprised I held my own. This is all at 9 a.m. if that. It started at 8:30 and you are there at 7:30 for medical testing. Subway’s steak, eggs and bacon doesn’t do you too much. The bikes are all of what they were hyped to be, they sucked.

 

Q: You got to Toronto for the combine on Friday, did the combine on Saturday and graduated from Fargo North on Sunday. How did it all work?

Cooper: I was back by 7 p.m. (on Saturday) and I missed rehearsal but doing National Honor Society last year, I knew the routine. It was a big huge relief after the whole testing and I felt like crap. The big joke was not biking for another month/year. It was a different kind of thing. I like to keep hockey and school separate and then you have a train wreck with both, school drops and then hockey drops.  I am pretty good at handling and keeping them separate. Graduation wasn’t stressful. Just walk across, smile and listen to the speakers. It was nice because (Force forward Nate Arentz)’ billets put on a graduation party and got to say hi to them and Nate’s family. And there were a couple other grad parties. It was a semi-busy day.

 

Q: You were named the USHL’s Scholar Athlete of the Year. Were you surprised you win the award or did you expect it?

Cooper: I don’t follow awards really. I read about it and I thought I should have got it last year. Its nice to get recognition for hard work and dealing with three years of high school, three years of junior hockey, three different coaches and the longest bus trips other than maybe Tri-City or Youngstown.

Nothin’ On You…

Turns out the chat between Miami (Ohio) and Taylor Richart turned out to be a good one after all.

Richart committed to Miami on Friday and will be at the school for the fall bringing his tenure with the Force to an end after one season, which was certainly successful.

He was only one of two players to play all of the team’s 60 games last season and put up an offensive punch every now and again by scoring 16 points. Richart burst onto the scene picking up the league’s defenseman of the week award to open the season.

Richart might not have put up the numbers as he did finish outside the Top 25 among defensemen in points. Yet what he did do was give the Force a defenseman comfortable enough to play in every scenario.

The 5-9, 160 pound Richart was part of a power play and a penalty kill which finished in the Top 5 last season helping the Force overcome a torrid start to end the season in fourth heading into the playoffs.

Richart to Miami started to really generate momentum after the Force’s tryout camp, which was held last week here in the Minneapolis area. Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis addressed the rumors Richart committed right after camp stating both Richart and Miami were seen talking to each other in the lobby of the rink where the camp was held.

His departure now means the Force have lost two players for next season who could have come back. Forward Jonny Brodzinski, who played at Blaine (MN-HS) with Richart, said weeks ago he will play next season at St. Cloud State.

Richart’s departure also means the Force’s defense will have a bit of a different look. He becomes the third defenseman to leave the team meaning Justin Wade (Notre Dame), will be the team’s only Top 4 returning defenseman.

It appears, at least for now, Wade will be joined by fellow returners Neal Goff, Taylor Fleming and Dominic Racobaldo. Defenseman David Mead’s future with the team is in flux after he was one of four Force players selected in the NAHL Draft.

Assuming the Force only return four defensemen, the team does have its options. Tender signee Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) will be on the roster next year as league rules require the Force to dress him in a specific amount of games.

Though the Force do have plenty of options. Entry draft pick Charles Hemstrom appears to be one of the players the Force will rely upon to fill that void. Hemstrom spent last season in the NAHL and was a plus-19 in 38 games last season. Davis hinted weeks ago Hemstrom will make the team  when he said Hemstrom fit the one of the needs the Force would have for the 2012-13 season.

Another option could be another entry draft pick Victor Bjorkung (Maine), who is also weighing offers to turn professional in his native Sweden.

This also means there’s a stronger chance both Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota) and Dante Suffredini among others could be included in the team’s plans for next season.

Pelnik, who at 6-4 and 185 pounds, might have been the team’s most vaunted prospect for the entire year. He committed to North Dakota at 15 becoming the first person from North Carolina to do so.

It was expected for Pelnik to play for the Force last season but he spent the season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS) to further his development.

Suffredini, however, spent last season at Detroit Honeybaked playing midgets.

Brain…

So far the latest not-so-shocking news with the Force is captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) was named the USHL’s Scholar Athlete of the Year.

Cooper, 18, practically held a 4.0 grade point average while he was here in Fargo and finished with a 3.9 GPA. He graduated from Fargo South last weekend as a member of the school’s National Honor Society.

Per a release from the USHL, Cooper won the award based on his grade point average, coursework and overall school participation.

Cooper, the release said, took classes in pre-calculus, psychology, advanced math, physics, English, government and forensics. He was also named of one of South’s “students of the month.”

He pulled this off in one of what was easily one of the more demanding years an individual Force player could have had.

Cooper, who is eligible for the NHL Draft, was heading into his third year with the Force. He was named captain and led a group which featured 13 first-year players and guided them to a fourth-place finish after losing 13 of their first 15 to start the season.

Though he didn’t have the offensive outburst many expected, he scored 24 points (6 goals, 18 assists) in 55 games, tying a career-high in games he’s had with the Force. In the playoffs, he had three points in six games. He also marshaled a defense which ranked third on the penalty kill, a year after it was ranked eighth.

In addition to all that, he represented and captained Team USA at the World Junior “A” Challenge in British Columbia leading the team to a bronze medal.

He recently completed the NHL Combine in Toronto further cementing the chances he will be taken this summer.

Cooper has said in previous interviews his goal, should hockey not work out, is to attend Creighton University and become a doctor.

Winning the award wraps up what has been a trophy-case heavy season for the Force. Cooper and goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) were named to the all-USHL team last week. Gothberg was a first-team selection while Cooper was a second-team choice.

Gothberg was also named the league’s co-Goaltender of the Year with Green Bay’s Ryan McKay (Miami (Ohio).