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College hockey: Cloquet native watches team play in his former NHL rink

Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com Minnesota Duluth fans Derek Plante and his son sit in Section 103 during the NCAA Frozen Four semifinal against Providence on Thursday, April 11, at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Plante is a former player and assistant coach at UMD.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The hundreds of rabid Buffalo Sabres fans checking out the opening game of the NCAA Frozen Four on Thursday, April 11, in their team's home building may have had no idea of the alumnus in their midst.

Sitting quietly in Section 103 with his 13-year-old son watching Minnesota Duluth play Providence was a forward who logged nearly 400 games in a Sabres jersey — both in their traditional blue and gold and in that odd red and black combo the Sabres wore for a mercifully brief time in the late 1990s.

A Cloquet native living in Hermantown now, Derek Plante's face is often seen inside pro hockey rinks, with his job in player development for the Chicago Blackhawks. Traveling with his middle son Max, Plante said he visited Chef's, an Italian restaurant in downtown Buffalo where the Sabres often had pregame meals, and took a trip to Niagara Falls, taking in the sights of this "big small town." But even he admitted being back in this chilly, windy port city — not totally unlike Duluth — where his eight-season NHL career began was a little different.

"It's fun. About seven, eight years ago was the first time I'd come back here since I played, and it was like 'wow.' It's fun to come back," said Plante, sitting among the noisy and hopeful throng of Bulldogs fans in one corner of the rink. "There are great memories I had here, playing in this building. I was here when it's opened, so it's a lot of fun."

He was drafted by the Sabres in 1989 out of Cloquet High School, before bursting onto the scene at UMD. By the end of his four-year run in a Bulldogs sweater, Plante was putting up 92 points, leading the Bulldogs to the WCHA title (the last conference regular-season crown they have won) and being named the league's MVP. He started with the Sabres in the fall of 1993 and came to Buffalo at a good time.

"My first year was the year after (Pat) LaFontaine and (Alexander) Mogilny had the huge run and Mogilny had 76 goals, so the Sabres were pretty hot," he said. "After that getting to play with some of those Hall of Fame guys was awesome."

Never an imposing physical presence, Plante was still an effective offensive contributor for the Sabres, posting a career-best 27 goals in the 1996-97 season, and adding four more in a dozen-game playoff run. With Dominik Hasek in goal, the Sabres were bound for the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999 when Plante was dealt to the Dallas Stars. Just a few months later, he would return to Buffalo in the spring with Dallas, and win a Stanley Cup on the controversial overtime goal by another Bulldog, Brett Hull, in the Sabres' home rink. It's a scene Plante still finds odd two decades later.

"It was a little surreal," Plante said. "All the buddies that I played with for six years were on the Sabres and all these new guys I'm with end up winning the Stanley Cup in the building where I'd played so often. It was just a really weird feeling."

Plante played 45 more NHL games over the next three seasons with Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia, then he spent five seasons playing in Europe before retiring 11 years ago. From there, Plante was a UMD assistant coach under Scott Sandelin for five seasons, and although his home office is in Chicago now, he still takes great pride in what his old school and old employer has done in reaching three straight national title games.

"Being part of the coaching staff and being behind the scenes, knowing how hard it is to get players," Plante said. "To be that consistently good is impressive, what Scott has done with the program."