2024 Fargo Force vs Des Moines Buccaneers

Fargo Force Clinch Anderson Cup Trophy For Second Straight Year

Fargo Force Clinch Anderson Cup Trophy For Second Straight Year

The Fargo Force have clinched the Anderson Cup Trophy for the second consecutive season. The prize is given annually to the USHL’s regular season champion.

Apr 1, 2024 by Ryan Sikes
Fargo Force Clinch Anderson Cup Trophy For Second Straight Year

The Fargo Force have clinched the Anderson Cup Trophy for the second consecutive season. 

The prize is given annually to the USHL’s regular season champion and is equivalent to the NHL’s President’s Trophy.

Fargo captured the organization’s first Anderson Cup Trophy last year with a 40-14-4-4 record (88 points) under then-head coach Nick Oliver. However, Fargo fell short of its goal, being swept in three games in the Clark Cup Finals by the Youngstown Phantoms.

Following the season, Oliver was named USHL Coach of the Year and joined Mike Hasting’s upstart University of Wisconsin program. 

Brett Skinner was tabbed as Oliver’s replacement in late May, returning to the USHL after serving as an assistant coach for the Sioux Falls Stampede for five seasons.

Skinner guided the NAHL’s Minnesota Wilderness to the league’s championship series during the 2022-2023 season, and his winning pedigree made him a perfect fit with what Fargo had been building through the draft and key trades to establish a culture and winning habits.

“Last year’s staff does deserve a ton of credit for the team that was built this year,” Skinner told FloHockey. “When I came in, it was just a continuation of my beliefs.

“When you’re in the defensive zone, we want to play good, defensive hockey and work to get the puck back. When we’re in the offensive zone, we want to have everybody on the ice contributing to getting the puck in the net and more strong, fundamental hockey.”

Those philosophies were instilled in camp and training camp, which aided Fargo in opening the 2023-2024 season with a franchise record of 10 consecutive wins to open a season.

The Force’s hot start was a sign of things to come. 

Fargo ripped off another 10-game win streak, spanning late January to late February. In early March, the Force established a franchise record for wins in a single season with 41.

“I don’t think when I got the job, or at the start of the year, that we were staring down a season like that,” Skinner said. “I think it does speak to the resources we have here in Fargo as far as top-to-bottom through the organization and giving (the players) the resources they need to get better. 

“I think there’s also a push from everyone in the organization from ownership to the front office to the management side of things and our whole staff that we want to win on top of that. I think that that showed, especially early in the season.”

Fargo’s early-season success was guided by its depth, which includes several key returning players from last year’s squad. Among the returners was forward Mac Swanson (2024), who led all rookie skaters in assists (43) in the 2022-2023 campaign.

After playing with two veterans in Cole Knuble and Bret Link, Swanson has proven he can center a line and drive plays on his own. The North Dakota commit recently established a franchise record for most points (71) and assists (47) in a single season.

Having been a part of last year’s squad, Swanson could see early on that this year’s Fargo team was capable of doing something special.

“I think during that 10-0 run to start the year,” Swanson said of when he realized the potential of this group. “I’ve never really been on a team that’s won 10 straight games, so during that run, I was like, ‘Wow, this could be a special group.’”

In addition to Swanson’s jump in production, perhaps nobody has benefited more from a change of scenery that forward Zam Plante (PIT). 

Rehabbing from an injury, the Minnesota Duluth got off to a slow start for Chicago last year, netting just 23 points in 33 games, before deciding that a change of scenery was best for his development. 

“Chicago was a great place,” Plante said. “I liked it a lot there, but I needed a new start.”

Fargo acquired the forward at the trade deadline, and Plante finished with 10 points (4-6-10) over the final 18 games, despite being buried behind Fargo’s top two lines. However, with several players moving on, Plante was in a position to play big minutes for the Force this season.

He has taken the opportunity and run with it. Through 53 games, Plante has 24 goals and 42 assists. His 66 points are the second on the Fargo roster and tied for sixth in the league. 

In addition to Swanson and Plante’s growth this season, Fargo’s approach to the Phase II Draft over the summer has seen a number of players step in and contribute immediately.

Gavin Morrissey, Lee Parks, Tom Leppa, Iiro Hakkarainen and Reid Daavettila all were part of Fargo’s Phase II Draft class last season. 

Parks has been perhaps the biggest surprise of them all, contributing 29 goals and 26 assists in his first USHL season. His 55 points rank third on the Force roster. 

Additionally, Hakkarainen and Daavettila have eclipsed the 25-point mark in secondary roles. Then, Morrissey has 10 goals and 24 points in 34 games, while Leppa has 23 points in 56 games.

“We got some good players here,” Plante added. “We got (Hakkarainen and Daavettila). I had never heard about them. It’s hard to hear about the (European players). They’ve come in, and they’re really good players.”

To drive the point home, this year’s Fargo team exudes a wealth of depth.

“We’re getting more contributions from all the way up and down the lineup,” said Swanson of this year’s roster compared to last year. “I think that’s kind of something I noticed with this team. Sometimes, we had it last year, and sometimes, we didn't, but I think our ability to score goals has been really good this year.”

Aside from the skaters, it would be remiss not to include Hampton Slukynsky's (LAK) importance to the team’s goaltending room. 

Anton Castro returning for a third season was significant for Fargo, especially after losing Matej Marinov, who was among the best USHL goaltenders last year.

However, Slukynsky’s first season in Fargo has been nothing short of spectacular. 

The rookie has a 1.91 goals-against average and a 0.920 save percentage, along with a league-leading five shutouts. Slukynsky’s 26 wins are the most among USHL goaltenders.

The Warroad, Minnesota, native was plucked in the 2022 Phase II Draft, underscoring how far back Fargo’s brass has brought reinforcements, despite losing key players each year.

However, the Force also have done an excellent job filling in holes on the fly. 

This year’s trade deadline, like last year when the team added Plante and made a splash acquisition in third-year player Owen Mehlenbacher, acquired two big names from Youngstown to bolster their roster.

Forward Brandon Svoboda (SJS) and defenseman Finn McLaughlin (2024) came over to bolster the team’s depth up front and along the blue line. Since being acquired, Svoboda has five goals and nine points in 15 games, giving Fargo yet another weapon for the postseason.

All of these moves have allowed Fargo to become the first USHL team to clinch a playoff spot, doing so in mid-February. 

The organization also is staring down another record. 

With just one more win, the Force can tie the USHL’s single-season record for wins (48), established by Des Moines during the 1998-1999 season.

With all of the team's success during the regular season, it would be easy to get complacent. 

A playoff spot has been secured, with no danger of losing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. The Force sit 26 points ahead of second-place Sioux City with four games remaining.

Both Swanson and Plante used the word “accountability” when describing Skinner’s coaching style. 

The first-year head coach has continued to expect more from his club. Fargo’s two-game sweep at the hands of Sioux Falls at the beginning of March shows that anything can happen.

However, Fargo has continued to trust the process and rebounded the following weekend with an emphatic three-game sweep of Lincoln, out-scoring the Stars 17-2 in that series.

“For me, it's a 62-game regular season,” Skinner said. “It doesn't really matter where you are in the standings. You want to continue to make the kids better. We got up and running quickly, so maybe you get from Level 1 to Level 2 as far as your teachings a little bit quicker.

“You're still always trying to advance, and if you stop trying to get better in this league, with the way these other organizations work, someone's just going to catch or fly by you.

“For us, there's no excuses here. The kids have all the resources, and we're really lucky. I think the reflection of our success is how hard the kids have worked.”

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