By Jim DenHollander
It has been three weeks since the Dells Ducks junior hockey team saw its season come to a sudden and devastating end in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Players have long since cleaned out their locker stalls and dispersed to multiple destinations across the USA — or Europe, in the case of Koen Bakker.
The pain of defeat dulls a bit with time, and the realization of what was accomplished in a solid season and terrific playoff run will return the swagger to the Ducks’ step. Even more helpful — for both the Ducks’ individuals and the franchise in general — is that others at higher levels of the game have begun to take notice.
Coach Bill Zaniboni and team president John Schwarz discussed the progress of several players — and the Ducks in general — while taking a break from a planning meeting this week.
The list of accomplishments begins with Dunk Abbott, the only Ducks player who, as of Friday, had yet to hang up his skates for the season.
Abbott, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound defenseman from Butte, Mont., who turns 20 next month, was the Ducks’ leading scorer at the Christmas break. After a couple of call-ups to the Port Huron, Mich., Fighting Falcons of the North American Hockey League, he joined the team for good over the holidays.
He has become a regular contributor for the Falcons, who opened their postseason Thursday night with a best-of-three series against the Johnstown, Pa., Tomahawks.
Despite playing in just 34 games with the Ducks, Abbott was fifth on the team’s scoring list with 20 goals and 13 assists.
“He’s a top-four guy for sure (on Port Huron). He’s done well,” Ducks coach Bill Zaniboni said. “He’ll be hopefully committing to a school in the next couple of weeks. The move to the Midwest definitely helped him a lot.”
Zaniboni said he expected Abbott to commit to the NCAA Division III Milwaukee School of Engineering program, meaning he would stay in the Midwest and play next season with Wisconsin Dells native and fellow NAHL graduate Derek Tylka.
On the flip side is Nick Albergo, a final-year junior player who spent the bulk of his regular season with the Janesville Jets but returned to the Ducks in time to score 10 points during the team’s wild run to the division finals.
Albergo is finalizing his college choice between the University of Wisconsin-Superior and St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn. It was quite a jump for a player who had all but surrendered on his chances a year ago, playing in a men’s league in his hometown of Elmhurst, Ill.
“I talked to Nick today. He’s kind of going back and forth between the two (schools), but either way it’s going to be a good option for him,” Zaniboni said.
The coach said providing a more stable off-ice environment has helped Albergo prepare for a shot at college hockey.
“We always try to make it a family environment. Kids feel more comfortable playing and I think you get more out of them,” said Zaniboni. “As much as we do want to win, we want to make sure the kids are comfortable and having fun and of course, working hard and disciplined.”
Goaltender John Sellie-Hanson, an original Ducks’ team member and the busiest goaltender in the league this season, will attend Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., playing for Doc DelCastillo, a former NAHL coach at Alexandria. He will become a rival of former Ducks teammate Matt Rowe, now a goaltender at rival Bethel University.
When starter Robbie Meadows was injured in early January, Sellie-Hanson became the anchor in goal for the Ducks. It was his play there as much as the offensive prowess of others that helped the team get to within a goal of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League championship series.
“Sellie just got back from his visit (to Hamline). Everything is good, he’s ready to rock,” said Zaniboni.
Connell Totten, the rugged, lanky defender for the Ducks also committed late in the season, fulfilling his goal of being accepted by East Washington University, a school that plays in the British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League.
“He’s going to fit in really well there,” said Zaniboni. “For him to get what he wanted, that specific school, that’s heartwarming to see a kid reach his top goal.”
Forward Skylar Harding has committed to Finlandia University in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Charles (Chucky) Marcoe has offers from a number of schools to play hockey and is considering financial packages and academic opportunities.
“He wants to go into nursing, so it’s tough to find the right situation academically. I think he is in a good spot right now,” Zaniboni said, noting that each of the four schools he is considering offer nursing degrees.
Team captain Tyler Jacobson of Middleton is deciding between St. Mary’s and Hamline for next season, Zaniboni said.
Austin Zima will return to University of Illinois and its club program in the fall. He came to the Ducks after the Christmas break last season. “He returns hopefully a more mature and better hockey player,” Zaniboni said.
The best news for Zaniboni is, “All of our ’92’s (players who have become too old to stay in junior hockey) will be playing next year. That’s a good thing.”
That group joins a growing list that includes Rowe, Brian Holappa (who played in the American Club Hockey Association Division 1 championship game with Rutgers), Tyler Pecka (who was in the ACHA Division 1 final four with the University of Ohio) and Ben Stachowiak, the team’s first captain in 2011-2012.
Stachowiak plans to reunite with the Ducks’ first coach, Shaun Falzone, on Aurora University’s club team next season.
The Ducks made an annual trek to play scrimmages against college programs last season, and Schwarz said that was one of the major recruiting points of the Ducks’ program — one that he plans to expand next season.
He also said the presence of Zaniboni as head coach has become the franchise’s No. 1 selling point.
“In the last two months of the season, with Bill as the coach, we were getting calls left and right from players who wanted to come here,” Schwarz said. “It tells you the program is being developed with the decisions we made at the top of our staff, (hiring) the coach and his assistant coaches. That’s the thing about this season I thought was amazing.”