Minnesota-Duluth makes its first trip to Canada in 50 years for exhibition game

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Growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, former Minnesota-Duluth center Travis Oleksuk was well aware of the Bulldogs thanks to his father Bill, who played for UMD from 1978-82.

As for the rest of Thunder Bay, the Bulldogs and NCAA hockey are on the radar, but their popularity never was, is or will come close to major junior’s Ontario Hockey League, despite its teams being nowhere near the Oleksuk family’s hometown.

“People have an idea of it, but it’s not anywhere near as recognized as it probably should be with how close UMD is compared to the OHL,” said Oleksuk, who won a national title with UMD in 2011. “It would be nice to get a little more exposure for the American schools. Slowly but surely we’re starting to see that as guys go that way.”

The Bulldogs’ exposure in Thunder Bay will get a boost this weekend when the team travels approximately 3.5 hours north on Highway 61 to play an exhibition series against Lakehead University at Friday and Saturday at Fort William Gardens.

The Bulldogs and Thunderwolves have met 12 times with UMD winning all 12 matchups, including the most recent Oct. 6 at Amsoil Arena. UMD scored three goals in a span of six minutes in the third period that night to rally for a 4-2 win.

UMD and Lakehead never have met in Canada, however, the Bulldogs have played in the Great White North before. Fifty years ago on Dec. 26, 1964, before the Ontario cities of Port Arthur and Fort William merged to form Thunder Bay. The Bulldogs tied the Port Arthur North Stars 6-6.

Dating back to 1954, 20 Bulldogs have called Port Arthur, Fort William or Thunder Bay home, with Oleksuk (2008-2012) being the most recent from the region.

“A lot of people that may not know a lot about NCAA hockey will know about the Bulldogs because of the proximity and the fact that they have some alums who went on to have fantastic NHL careers,” Thunderwolves manager of operations and media relations John Payetta told Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio in Thunder Bay while promoting the series. “They’ll appreciate seeing them play here.”

Knowing about the Bulldogs and following the Bulldogs are two separate things and, according to Oleksuk, chances are slim Thunder Bay and the rest of Western Ontario ever will be converted from an OHL hotbed to “Bulldog Country” despite the closest OHL franchise being eight hours away in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The next closest is Sudbury, more 11 hours away. The majority of the league is located in the province’s southeastern peninsula.

There are at least five NCAA teams — UMD, St. Cloud State, Minnesota, Bemidji State and Minnesota — closer to Thunder Bay than the Soo Greyhounds. North Dakota, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech and Lake Superior State are also within similar range of the Greyhounds.

“It’s never going to be as close as the OHL. That will always be the No. 1 thing,” said Oleksuk, who is in his third season with the American Hockey League’s Worcester Sharks. “Uneducated people think that is the only way, but hopefully as time goes on, kids become more aware. Maybe if they show more games on TV, show the crowds we get at school, show the student section, I think that would bring more attention and awareness to people in Thunder Bay to take a glance [at college hockey].

“It really doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think it clearly comes from that we don’t have a lot of exposure to college hockey. If you don’t travel to a school, you’re not going to see one on TV.”

The Bulldogs last left the United States in 1984 to play two exhibition games against Russia’s Junior Red Army in Leningrad and Moscow. NCAA regulations allow teams to go on a foreign tour once every four years, but it must take place during a break in school. For the Bulldogs, that would either be in August — months before the season begins — or during the holiday break.

UMD coach Scott Sandelin said he has no interest in another European tour, but if the team’s schedule is favorable, he’d play in Canada again.

“It would have been nice to go up there and play a couple different universities, which is what North Dakota did in [British Columbia],” Sandelin said. “I did talk to [Lakehead] about that to try and get another Canadian university and possibly another U.S. college up there but it was kind of late in the game.

“[Thunder Bay] is an area that is nice because it’s close. There are a lot of good players there. It seems a lot of those kids are going to the OHL, but hopefully there are kids up there that are interested. They have midget teams and we’ve had conversations with kids from up there.”

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