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Waterloo native Hunter Lellig set to play in Frozen Four

Waterloo native Hunter Lellig set to play in Frozen Four

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Hunter Lellig was not sure whether his legs would have made it another period.

There are two dates that will stick out for Lellig, the Waterloo native, who Thursday will take the ice for Minnesota-Duluth in the 2021 NCAA Frozen Four at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Lellig will become the third Waterloo native to play in the Frozen Four when the Bulldogs face off against UMass at 8 p.m. in an ESPN2 telecast. He will join Walt Kyle, who captained the 1980 and 1981 Northern Michigan teams to the Frozen Four, and was a member of the 1978 Boston College Frozen Four team, and current Los Angeles Kings’ starting goalie Cal Petersen who led Notre Dame to the Frozen Four in 2017.

October 13th, 2019 will always stick out to Lellig because that is the day he lost an edge while battling teammate Jackson Cates slide into the boards and broke his leg effectively ending his sophomore season at UMD.

Waterloo Black Hawks' head coach P.K. O'Handley talks about former Black Hawk and Waterloo native Hunter Lellig as Lellig prepares to play in the Frozen Four Thursday for Minnesota-Duluth

That is a day Lellig would like to forget, but can’t.

The second date Lellig never wants to forget.

Two weeks ago, on March 27th, Lellig and Bulldogs were on the ice with NCHS rival North Dakota at Scheels Arena in Fargo, N.D. Sixty minutes stood between UMD and UND and a spot in the Frozen Four.

The Bulldogs and Fighting Hawks played 142 minutes and 13 seconds before the game was decided.

Luke Mylymok scored 2 minutes and 13 seconds into the fifth overtime to lift UMD to a 3-2 victory and its fourth consecutive Frozen Four and a chance for the Bulldogs join Michigan (1951-53) as the program to win three consecutive NCAA Division I hockey championships.

“It is crazy to think about,” said Lellig, who was named to the all-region team for his play in the Fargo regional. “First, Michigan tests positive and they are out and we get an extra days rest. Then we have to play North Dakota, an unbelievable hockey team.

“But to go that long we almost made up for the game we didn’t play and a little extra. It was crazy. I’m real happy we got the win.”

UMD and UND had played twice previously this season before that regional final with the Fighting Hawks winning by a goal in regulation and the two teams playing to a 2-2 tie in the other meeting.

Entering the game, Lellig, who played for his hometown team the Waterloo Black Hawks for part of the 2016-17 season and all of the 2017-18 season, said the Bulldogs mood inside the locker room never changed as the game got longer and longer.

UMD actually thought they had it won in the first overtime when it appeared as if Kobe Roth had won it when he finished a two-on-one rush 7:38 into the first extra period. But the goal was disallowed after an extensive review when it was determined that Roth was fractions of an inch offsides.

P.K. O'Handley speaks on the development of Waterloo native and former Waterloo Black Hawk as Lellig prepares to play in the Frozen Four Thursday. 

“Having that sucked out of you was tough,” Lellig said. “But we bounced back and played pretty well. They had chances, too. It was a game that could’ve went either way. It was very unreal and very rewarding to win it.”

In order to play effectively that long the Bulldogs like the Fighting Hawks reverted to unconventional in-between period tactics.

Players were consuming cans of Coke and other forms of sugar while lying on the ground with their feet up on chairs trying to flush lactic acid out.

The game was so physically demanding that UMD had to switch goalies in the fourth overtime. Starter Zach Stejskal, after making 57 saves, grew tired and started cramping, and was forced to remove himself from the game and Ryan Fanti, who shares starting duties with Stejskal was inserted into the game.

“It was getting pretty desperate toward the end,” Lellig said. “Myself, included. I don’t know how much longer I or we were able going to be able to go on.

“In the lockerroom the mood was good. As the overtimes piled up the coaches stopped coming in. There was a lot of talk about how crazy this game was but at the end of the day we all realized there was still something on the line to play for.”

As Lellig learned afterward had nobody won in the fifth overtime the sixth overtime would have been moved to the next day.

“I heard before we went out for the fifth overtime North Dakota wanted to stop it,” Lellig recalls. “They were hurting. We were hurting. We were both in the same position. I presume we said no. But had it went into a sixth overtime they were going to stop it. Thankfully it didn’t get to that.”

Lellig added that he heard from a lot of people back home that stayed up for the game that ended past Midnight. One of those was his Black Hawks’ coach P.K O’Handley.

“I thought it was pretty special,” O’Handley said. “On two parts, really. I’m a UMD Bulldog life-long fan from growing up there and certainly we have had a lot of players over the years that have contributed to their success which is great to see.

“I’ve watched Hunter in both juniors, over summers and in his college career and it is gratifying for me, our team, our organization and our community to see a great game and I thought he was tremendous in that hockey game.”

This Frozen Four is a little more meaningful for Lellig. He was part-time player for the team that won in 2019, and COVID shutdown the season last year just as he was getting healthy enough to be reinserted into the Bulldog lineup in the NCHC playoffs.

As a junior he is playing significant minutes and including a primary role on the penalty kill.

“UMD has been great. I love it,” Lellig said. “It has given me an opportunity to play my game which isn’t very offensive. I’m not the flashiest guy. I’m not going to score a lot of points.

“But I’m being given the opportunity to kill penalties and be out there for a regular shift, block shots and play the game I excel at and think could get me to play later in life.

“All that is meaningful,” Lellig continued. “It means a little more to you when you actually have a big part in the final outcome, that you are responsible for a lot of things.”

Lellig plans on returning for his senior season and is contemplating whether he will take advantage of a medical hardship for his lost sophomore season. He says he could even stay for a sixth (COVID) year if UMD wants him.

“I don’t know. Six years in college might be a little much,” Lellig laughed.

O’Handley after hearing how Lellig described his game said those words are what a lot of young hockey players struggle to understand but is the reason why Lellig is succeeding.

“I think that is what he is and he knows it,” O’Handley said of Lellig understanding he is a defensive, defenseman. “I think for a young player that is a great lesson to figure out who you are and what you are as a player and Hunter has done that.

“It is great for this community to have a Waterloo, Iowa product who played some of his youth hockey here and certainly his junior hockey playing on the national stage.”

BLACK HAWKS GALORE: Thursday’s second semifinal between UMD and UMass will feature seven former Waterloo Black Hawks.

Lellig, defenseman Louie Roehl, forward Jackson Cates and forward Nick Swaney will lace up for Bulldogs, and forwards Bobby Trivigno and Garrett Wait as well as defenseman Aaron Bohlinger will play for the Minutemen.

Swaney leads UMD in scoring with 13 goals and 14 assists in 26 games, while Trivigno is UMass’ top scorer with 10 goals and 21 assists in 27 games.

“That is exciting and nerve racking,” O’Handley said. “It is a great thing for this organization to have all those guys on that national stage. Like I’ve said before, those guys are great human beings as well as great hockey players.”

The other semifinal between Minnesota-Mankato and St. Cloud State has no former Black Hawks.

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