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For Minnesota State freshman Ryan Sandelin, playing Division I hockey is a game of musical chairs.
He is one of 17 forwards battling in practice every week for 13 spots on each weekend’s game roster. Now that Mavs centerman Jake Jaremko has returned from mononucleosis, coach Mike Hastings has locked down his top two lines. That leaves seven remaining forward slots with 11 men vying for those precious game jerseys.
“It’s about as competitive as it gets,” said Sandelin, who has dressed for 10 of the Mavericks 14 games this year. “You can’t take a day off, honestly. You can’t take a shift off in practice. It’s a new experience for me. You got to bring your work boots.”
Each week the lines — assigned by color — get shuffled in practice. Last week Ryan wore a yellow jersey, this week he wore red, along with temporary linemates Cade Borchardt and Walker Duehr. Sandelin doesn’t read too much into the weekly hue of his practice sweater.
“It doesn’t matter what color jersey you have on,” he said. “[The coaches] are pretty active about moving guys around. You’ve got to show up with a good attitude whether you’re playing or not. A lot of guys want to be in that lineup.”
This past weekend in Duluth, Hastings honored young Sandelin by dressing him in both games against Minnesota Duluth. It was a homecoming for the freshman, taking on his father’s Bulldog squad, a program he had grown up around, and a team that currently skates three players with whom he won a Minnesota high school state championship while at Hermantown: Dylan Samberg, Cole Koepke, and Jesse Jacques.
“These guys are brothers,” said Ryan, who won a second state title with Bulldogs’ Samberg and Jacques in 2017. “You win a championship together, you’re brothers for life.”
More importantly to Ryan, however, was that, for the first time in three years, he returned to the Sandelin family dinner table Thanksgiving night.
“We don’t get to do that very often, we’re all so busy,” he said. “Between my dad’s job, me being gone, my sister (Katie) playing hockey and my mom working, it’s nice to just sit around the table and hang out.”
Although Ryan was with his Maverick hockey family for Thanksgiving dinner at the team hotel, his culinary highlight was the dessert course later that evening at casa Sandelin.
“My mom makes a chocolate-filled pie,” said Wendy Sandelin’s grateful son. “Not a lot of words were spoken — the pie was too good.”
Ryan may have inherited his impeccable work habits from his dad, but his bond with his mom is second to none. It’s more than just her sumptuous baking.
“She’s always first star, no matter what day it is,” he said.
Ryan has been indebted to his mom since Day 1, when Wendy gave birth to him while suffering from breast cancer. Her first months of child-rearing were coupled with intense chemotherapy treatments.
“She’s been through so much,” Ryan said. “She’s my role model, my best friend.”
With mom in the stands, and dad on the opposite bench Friday night, young Ryan got on the scoresheet in the second period. His shot from the slot rebounded to linemate Josh French, who banged in the goal, giving Minnesota State an insurmountable 3-0 lead. Saturday’s game was also a victory for the visiting Mavericks, but due to a freakish power outage and a game colored by special-teams play, Ryan found himself stapled to the bench for long stretches. Sulking on the sidelines is not part of the Sandelin DNA.
“You’ve got to stay in the game, cheering for all the guys on the ice,” said the consummate coach’s son. “It keeps the energy up, keeps you ready for the next shift.”
Ryan’s personal highlight from sweeping the defending champs came in the handshake line. First to parade by were his “brothers” from Hermantown. There was no chirping the reigning NCAA kings.
“Those guys won the national championship last year, so they get all the respect they deserve,” Ryan said about a scene that took a surreal turn. “It’s pretty cool going through the line and then seeing your dad at the end of it.”
Father and son initially shook hands, then broke into a loving embrace.
“He told me he was proud of me,” Ryan said. “A pretty cool moment, tried not to get too emotional.”
In an instant it was over, the two Sandelins splintering off on their separate hockey journeys, plying their craft from opposite ends of Minnesota. Their paths will intersect once again next year in Mankato, though no one would be surprised if they face each other again in March, with the stakes considerably higher. Wendy Sandelin will be in the stands, rooting for her husband’s Bulldogs to make history, and then reverse course and pull for the Mavericks, if and when Ryan steps onto the ice.
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.