Fort Frances, ON native Joe Basaraba did not really understand what was going on during his freshman year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth when the Bulldogs defeated Michigan 3-2 to win the NCAA National Championship.
The Canadian right winger was new to the American college hockey scene and just holding on for the wild ride as he adjusted to a new level of play after spending the previous two years at Shattuck-St. Mary’s.
“It was almost a surreal moment there coming in as an 18-year-old, and you don’t really know what is going on,” Basaraba said. “I was kind of new to college hockey (after) growing up in Canada.
“We had a great leadership role there in my freshman year that kind of brought me in and took me under their wing. It was all up from there.”
Basaraba notched an assist in UMD’s 4-3 semifinal victory over Notre Dame at the 2011 Frozen Four and was the youngest player on the team. He didn’t turn 19 until a month after the season had ended.
After being a third-line grinder on UMD’s championship team, Basaraba has since matured into a top-line winger for the Bulldogs (10-15-3, 8-11-3 WCHA) this year. The 2010 NHL Draft third round pick of the Florida Panthers has seven goals and four assists in 28 games this year.
“My first year obviously there was a lot of good skill players on the team and I had to take on kind of a physical shutdown role,” the junior said. “When we went into last year I was put on one of the top lines and now this year I am looked to as one of our offensive threats.”
Basaraba’s hockey journey is different then most Canadian players that thrive in the Canadian junior leagues. After being drafted in the second round (22nd overall) by the Erie Otters in the 2008 OHL Priority Selection, the 16-year-old was not ready to be that far away from home. Instead, Basaraba was given an opportunity to play under Tom Ward at Shattuck-St. Mary’s.
Ironically, Basaraba never returned to Canada to play hockey, choosing to stay in the state of Minnesota when he committed to UMD.
“I can’t really regret a single thing,” Basaraba said. “Obviously the OHL is a good place for players to grow up but college fit me best. I came in as a freshman and was lucky enough to win a national championship so that’s icing on the cake.”
The 6-foot-3 inch, 195-pound winger has become not only one of the Bulldog’s top physical offensive contributors but he has also been seeing time on the team’s penalty kill and 4-on-4 units. UMD coach Scott Sandelin has watched Basaraba mature on and off the ice during his three years as a Bulldog and says Basaraba has always accepted whatever his role may be on the team.
“I give him credit because he works at the game and spends a lot of time working on things,” Sandelin said. “He is one of those guys coaches like because you don’t have to tell him to work hard. He works hard on his own and hopefully more guys follow him.”
Now that the college hockey season is more than halfway over, and with one year remaining in his college career, Basaraba hopes to continue his development into a power forward. It is a playing style the Panthers have asked him to work on during his time in Duluth, MN.
“Mostly moving up now into my offensive role they want me to hold onto that and continue to get better in the offensive zone,” Basaraba said. “Moving up you have to adapt into a new league. With my big body and frame, and my skating style, I have to turn into a strong power forward. I have to be able to get pucks up, drive to the net, control the corners and make plays.”
Sandelin says the Bulldog’s coaching staff continuously stresses to the Florida Panthers' prospect that he has to become that strong, physical player to succeed at the next level.
“He needs to play that power forward type of role. He needs to play physical,” Sandelin said. “Those are some of the things we keep reminding him of to make sure he is playing that way to be effective.”
Caleb Herbert, a fifth round draft pick of the Washington Capitals in 2010, is one of six NHL draft picks on the UMD roster and called playing with Basaraba a good experience because the two can relate to each other’s NHL dreams and aspirations.
“Everyone is kind of working towards that goal. That is the good thing about our team,” Herbert said. “(Basaraba) is a big, physical player and uses his body real well. He’s got a great shot.”
Prior to this season Basaraba attended the Panthers' July development camp where he roomed with Hockey’s Future top-ranked Panthers' prospect, Jonathan Huberdeau. The two became good friends and Basaraba hopes someday to join Huberdeau, who has three goals and three assists in 11 games for the Panthers.
“We became pretty good buddies,” Basaraba said. “You definitely spend time together at the development camps over the summer. Teammates are like family. You get to be pretty good friends and hopefully future teammates.”
Until then, though, he must continue to develop at the NCAA level wearing the UMD maroon and gold with pride.
“I just have to continue getting better here in my last year-and-a-half and just get better,” Basaraba said. “Continue to work on all my puck skills, skating and a little bit of everything so I can move on to that next level.”
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