When Connor Gaarder was young, he didn’t talk a lot.
“A man of very, very few words,” his father, Tim, said. “He struggled with that as a young man. It just wasn’t his gig. People who see him on Through These Doors now are surprised at how well he speaks.”
He’s still not a huge talker, but Gaarder’s teammates have learned that when he does speak, it’s usually gold.
The UND senior forward, who came to campus as a recruited walk-on and will leave as one of the team captains, has become one of the most popular and endearing figures in the locker room for the country’s No. 1-ranked team.
“He’s one of those guys where you’ve never met someone like him, and you’re never going to meet someone like him again,” teammate Gage Ausmus said.
“If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he’s probably a goalie,” Coltyn Sanderson said.
“In one word, he’s unique,” captain Stephane Pattyn said. “I’ve never met someone like Connor.”
“He’s just a one-of-a-kind guy,” Colten St. Clair said. “He’s hilarious.”
Gaarder often breaks the ice with his off-the-wall, random, unpredictable quips. He has endeared himself to the team through his quiet, caring side. And has become popular amongst the fans for his relentlessness on the ice and his knack for scoring big goals.
The Edina, Minn., native, who will be celebrated on Saturday night as part of Senior Weekend, has made much more out of his college hockey career than was initially expected.
Gaarder was always an elite player growing up, but was overshadowed once he got to Edina High School.
Eight of his prep teammates ended up playing Division I hockey. Four of them were drafted by NHL teams. Gaarder was not. He graduated without being drafted, without a single college scholarship offer.
He spent two years playing in the North American Hockey League, hoping to catch the attention of Division I recruiters. He did not.
So, Gaarder signed up to play his final year of juniors in a Tier III league in New Jersey, hoping an Eastern school would spot him.
That’s when UND assistant coach Dane Jackson called.
UND’s star recruit, J.T. Miller, decided to sign with the New York Rangers after the draft and not attend school. He played Canadian major juniors instead. UND needed to grab a last-minute replacement.
The coaching staff went through its recruiting and scouting notes. Jackson had a roster from a Coulee Region (Iowa) game. Gaarder’s name was circled.
UND’s coaches were familiar with him. They recruited Joe Gleason out of Edina while Gaarder was a teammate. The staff made a few calls, watched some more tape and refreshed their memory on Gaarder.
He was their guy.
UND brought Gaarder on a late-summer visit. By the end of the day, he was signed up to live in the dorms and had a class schedule.
No, he wasn’t a first-round NHL draft pick and future superstar like Miller, but the UND coaching staff probably had no idea how well this late-summer pickup would work out.
Most remember Gaarder’s first conditioning practice at UND.
He hit a wall early, but found a way to finish the drill. His teammates took notice.
That’s the way Gaarder has approached everything during his time in Grand Forks.
“The stereotype of Edina guys is that a lot is given to them,” Pattyn said. “He’s 100 percent the opposite. Connor hasn’t had anything come easy for him. Anything that has come toward him, he’s worked very hard and deserved.”
Gaarder was a healthy scratch for nine of UND’s first 10 games as a freshman. His skating wasn’t college ready, so he spent time before and after practice trying to improve that area of his game.
In practice, he was relentless.
“We play every drill to the final whistle,” Sanderson said. “He takes it to the point where he gets people really angry. There’s like a fifth or a sixth rebound, and you’re like, ‘This guy is still going?’
“His intensity level changes when he puts the helmet on and gets out there. It’s not happy-go-lucky Gords anymore. It’s a guy who is fighting for his life every time he’s on the ice.”
By November of his freshman season, Gaarder re-joined the lineup and never left the rest of the season. He’s been a fixture the last three seasons.
During last year’s run to the NCAA Frozen Four, Gaarder was the central figure. He scored two goals in a must-win game against Western Michigan to get UND into the NCAA tournament. He scored the game-winning, double overtime goal to beat Ferris State in the regional final and clinch a Frozen Four trip for the team. At the Frozen Four, he scored UND’s lone goal in the loss to Minnesota.
“One of his greatest qualities is that he’s just a gamer,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “When the game is tight or on the line, he’s a guy that goes out and plays and does a good job.”
His teammates also have a theory on that.
“I’d like to be inside his head before those big games,” Ausmus said. “I’m sure some guys are sitting there with butterflies in their stomach and they are nervous. I guarantee that he’s just sitting there like it’s just another Tuesday practice.”
Gaarder was voted one of the team captains before the season. It was a no-brainer choice for the players.
“He’s probably one of the most caring people I’ve ever met,” Pattyn said. “He really does care about everyone. I’m not sure if he’s someone you go to for advice, but he’ll always cheer you up and always be there for you. I’ve lived with him for three years now. I’ve really gotten to know him well. He’s one of my best friends and he’s very caring.”
“He would do anything for the guys on the team,” St. Clair said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s not always a vocal guy, but the way he battles on the ice and the way he would do anything for any of the guys… he’s definitely a guy you want on your team.”
Gaarder has grown during his time at UND, too.
He has become more open and more talkative. An average high school student, Gaarder has turned into an all-WCHA and all-National Collegiate Hockey Conference academic honoree in college. He will graduate with a degree in entrepreneurship this spring.
“I’m so proud of him,” his father said. “I had a tough time getting through school without playing sports. I’m so proud of him for being so disciplined. He’s committed to being a good hockey player and also a good student.
“I also attribute a lot to coach Hakstol and his staff for the things they’ve done for Connor in his personal life and for helping him with everything he’s accomplished. They build these boys into very, very fine young men on and off the ice.”
A final weekend
Senior Weekend will be extra special for Gaarder.
His older brother Casey, his closest friend, is flying back from Bangkok, Thailand, where he teaches English to attend the series. It will be Casey’s first time in the United States since he left 13 months ago.
His sisters Kerianne and Bailey will be there, as will his father, Tim, and mother, Erin Burns.
If UND gets one win this weekend, it is guaranteed to at least play two more home games in the first round of the NCHC playoffs.
And maybe Gaarder can add another big goal to his resume.
“There’s a reason he gets those big goals,” St. Clair said. “It’s the way he approaches the game and the way he works at it. He deserves it. I can’t emphasize enough how hard that guy battles. He gets rewarded for it.
“He’s big-time in big games.”
-Brad Elliott Schlossman