On the back of University of North Dakota netminder Zane Gothberg’s helmet is a caricature of an elderly woman with long, curly hair, oversized oval-shaped earrings and large, black-rimmed glasses. She is holding a Diet Coke and has a sweater with UND ascribed across her chest. Below the picture are four words:
Love you Grandma Susie.
“It took a toll on me when she passed away,” says Gothberg, whose grandmother taught at North Dakota, “so it is a nice tribute to have and kind of a little analogy: She’s always got my back.”
“Grandma Susie” was Sue McIntyre, the former head of the Occupational Therapy department at UND. Her students drew the cartoon, which was the inspiration for Gothberg's mask artwork, and presented it to the revered professor.
“Originally she had a cigarette and a Diet Coke can in her hand,” he says, “because that is what she was known for.”
She held the cigarette in Fargo, where Gothberg played his junior hockey before joining the Fighting Sioux. At that time, she had his team’s name, Force, written across her chest and the can in her hand remained unidentified.
When he arrived in Grand Forks, however, the cigarette got snuffed.
“Now it’s slightly original with the UND, but minus the cigarette just because tobacco,” he pauses to chuckle, “[the NCAA] can’t endorse that by any means.”
Even to this day, you can tell he misses “Grandma Susie”.
“She was a big influence throughout my life,” he says nostalgically. “She got me into hockey.” The two would travel throughout the Midwest, watching a hockey game at every stop.
“We would always go on road trips together,” he says, “hockey road trips down to Minneapolis, to Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, upper elite league tournaments as well.” His favorite stop was at Ralph Engelstad Arena to see the Sioux play.
“Thief River Falls is only an hour away from Grand Forks,” he says, “so we went to a lot of UND games over at the old Ralph and that just started the tradition.”
Born in Grand Forks, Gothberg moved at age seven when his mother took a job in Thief River Falls, MN. He played three years of high school hockey there, but returned to North Dakota to join the Force for two years after his junior year.
“It was great [having everything near by],” he says, noting that Fargo is only one hour from Grand Forks and that at Lincoln High, his school in Thief River Falls, he also played in Ralph Engelstad Arena. “My grandmother, my mom and my sister were able to come to games. It wasn’t like I was playing in Green Bay or Dubuque, Iowa or something like that where they would have to plan a special trip.”
At North Dakota, Gothberg has chosen to follow in his grandmother’s footsteps and is a Pre-Occupational Therapy major. Currently a sophomore, he is still taking his core classes and a couple of pre-requisites in order to meet demanding requirements in the field.
“It’s a lot of psychology classes, communications and sciences as well,” he says. “Once you get into the field, say for example a person gets hurt, gets into a car crash or an elderly lady falls, you help them with daily living.”
“It’s an occupation that I look forward to,” he continues, “and I look forward to helping people as well.”
In the present, however, his focus is on hockey. A sixth-round draft choice of the Boston Bruins, Gothberg could become one of the few American goaltenders to make it to the National Hockey League, but the journey will take him far from the comforts of home.
“At each level you grow as a hockey player, but more so as a person,” he says. “Each year you get to experience different bonds and different relationships.”
He says that no matter where he goes, however, he will never be too far from home.
“My mom has a trailer house so she can always put that on wheels,” he says, laughing.
As for his grandmother, she may not be at the game in person, but he has the comfort that she will be there with him in spirit.
After all, she’s always got his back.
Follow Tom Schreier on Twitter via @tschreier3