Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography and Russ Hons/UND Athletics
Earning the “C”
Senior forward Austin Poganski never imagined he would become the captain for one of the most history-rich hockey programs in North America. The St. Cloud, Minnesota, native arrived in Grand Forks after one season with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm.
His stint with the USA U17 team put him on NHL scouts’ radars. The following year, Poganski played 55 games for Tri-City, and he was drafted 110th overall in the NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues. He put his pro career on hold and UND hockey is glad he did.
“To be able to be a captain here my senior year is a humbling experience,” Poganski said two nights before UND opened its season with an exhibition against Manitoba. It was the first game the senior would wear the letter “C” on his chest.
Although he says he never expected to be named captain, his college experience has been leading to this moment. Poganski was an assistant captain last year as a junior. His roommate, Gage Ausmus, was the captain and led the defending national champions back to the NCAA Regionals.
“Being able to have a year of leadership within my living situation last year, I think will help me throughout this year,” said Poganski, who followed his breakout sophomore season with 25 points and career-high 12 goals as a junior.
The label of captain doesn’t just mean he flips a coin before puck drop or he gets to wear an armband. Hockey is unique. With the “C” comes responsibility and respect. The captain is there to set the example for the entire program. He mentors the younger guys and as Poganski says, “teach them to be North Dakota hockey players.”
Poganski added, “If they see older guys like myself and other seniors and other (assistant) captains doing the right things, they’re going to follow suit, so I think it’s just more about leading by example on and off the ice.”
The UND hockey team has eight newcomers this season. Poganski, with the help of his three assistant captains, Rhett Gardner, Trevor Olson and Johnny Simonson, will be expected to lead UND back to the NCAA Tournament.
Poganski will begin his final year in Grand Forks with the target off his back. UND was ranked seventh in the preseason poll and is coming off an early exit in the postseason last spring.
He said he’s okay with that, but at the same time, recognizes opponents bring their best game when they enter Ralph Engelstad Arena, no matter where UND is ranked.
“And rightfully so,” Poganski said. “I think that’s an advantage for us, too, because if every team is playing us at their best, that just makes us a better team throughout the stretch.”
The stretch won’t come for captain Poganski and the UND hockey team until January when they play 12 NCHC games in a row before the conference quarterfinals.
Poganski is the active leader at UND in total games played with 126. And UND expects him to use that experience to lead the way and place UND next to the country’s elite.
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues, 4th Round (110th overall, 2014)
HOMETOWN: ST. CLOUD, MN
CLUB: TRI-city – USHL
What’s the identity of this team that is formulating this preseason?
The Captain: “A big thing that I’ve noticed is each year we send off, whether it’s two, three, four or five players to the NHL, and we bring in seven or eight new guys. I think that’s pretty standard at the University of North Dakota, and each year we have a way of refilling that next man up mentality. I think with these incoming freshmen, I think there’s one true freshman. The other guys are a little bit older with a little more experience through Juniors.
“With saying that, I think the depth of our team is going to be a lot better since I’ve been here. I think it’s going to be for the best in winning games down the stretch.
“To be consistent on a daily basis, we need to have all four lines going and pushing each other in practice for competition, for different lines, and I think that’s going to be huge. Just as a player, I want guys who are pushing me every day. I don’t want everything to be set in stone. I want to be pushed. I want to get better and that’s why we come here. We want to make it to the next level, and I think here, with the depth that we have, it’s going to be a good run for us.”
Why did you put your pro career on hold?
The Captain: “Coming in as a freshman, I never thought I’d have an opportunity to leave early, and now, when you think about having an offer, it’s pretty tough to say no. But then I think about coming to the rink every day and just the college experience—there’s nothing better. There’s not a better facility, weight room and coaching staff.
“You can’t say enough about how much I’ve improved because of what I’ve received throughout my time here. I just thought I would look back at this last year, if I didn’t come back, and just regret it, and that’s one regret I didn’t want to have.”