Cloquet native Koby Bender won back-to-back NCAA championships in his first two seasons of college hockey at Minnesota Duluth.
What he didn’t see during those first two years, however, was a consistent shift.
That’s all changed over the past two seasons for Bender, the now-senior wing, who is no longer in and out of the lineup. The former Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Lumberjack and Minnesota Wilderness product has become an important piece of the Bulldogs offense and even finds himself this season on the power play and, if needed, killing penalties.
He’s got a career-high 16 points via four goals and 12 assists for UMD heading into this weekend’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
“He’s had a really good year. I give him a lot of credit,” said coach Scott Sandelin, whose Bulldogs play Western Michigan at 7:37 p.m. Saturday in the NCHC quarterfinals. “That's kind of been a staple in our program. We've had some guys that have come in and have been a big, big part of our team in their latter couple of years, maybe not as much as their first couple years. I’ve liked Koby’s stick-to-itiveness, he stayed with it and he kept battling even though there were ups and downs. Now he's getting rewarded.
“Right now he’s a dangerous player when he gets going because he’s got the ability to score some goals and make plays. His speed is a lot like Cole Koepke’s.”
Bender played in just nine games as a freshman and 16 as a sophomore, posting three goals and two assists in those two years combined. He had five goals and three assists last season as a junior, but was in the lineup for 32 of UMD’s 34 games before COVID-19 shut down the season.
A staple in the lineup this season for all 24 games thus far, Bender has played alongside junior center Jackson Cates and senior wing Kobe Roth since late January. Outside of Swaney, that line has been the Bulldogs' major source of offense the last two weeks in the 5-1 home win over St. Cloud State and 4-3 overtime loss at week on the road against the Huskies.
Bender was a guest this week on the Bulldog Insider Podcast with News Tribune college hockey writer Matt Wellens and the voice of Bulldog hockey on My9 Sports, Zach Schneider. They discussed not only his career at UMD, but the years leading up to it, including his decision not to play high school hockey his senior year at CEC and instead play for the Wilderness of the North American Hockey League.
Below are edited excerpts from this week’s episode. Produced by award-winning News Tribune multimedia producer Samantha Erkkila, you can catch the full episode of this week’s Bulldog Insider at DuluthNewsTribune.com, TheRinkLive.com and on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
What was it like playing for the other hometown team, the Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League, your senior year? Can you take us through that decision?
“Honestly, it was a good decision for me. It was really nice still being in Cloquet and still getting to be with my buddies and go to high school with them. Not playing with them on the hockey team was a little difficult and still seeing them at the rink and stuff wasn't the greatest, but I think it was a good move for me just playing at a higher level with older guys — more physical, more speed. It helped me in the long run, definitely.”
You would have been well-known coming back for your senior season at CEC at that point in your career. You would have maybe been a captain and certainly one of the senior leaders. Giving that up, how tough was that?
“It was a hard decision. Growing up with those guys, playing with them from all the way from when you're a little kid to high school, and them being your best friends, it's hard to not get to finish out that last year with them. But I think they were really understanding of that and supported my decision. I talked to a couple of them before I made the decision and kind of got their input and stuff. They were really supportive of that so I'm grateful for that.”
Any time in Minnesota a high school player leaves early to play juniors, it seems to drum up controversy. Do you feel there more or less controversy for you, who still got to stay and play in his hometown? What was the reaction like around town?
“It was a little, not the greatest reactions at first, but I think after a while everyone kind of understood my decision and was supportive of it. I'm just happy that everyone came around and supported me for my decision.”
When you get to the point you're at now, and you're at UMD and you've won national titles and you've had so much success, do you feel at all vindicated?
“Yeah, absolutely. I think when I did leave my senior year, that's when I first started talking to UMD. That opened doors for me playing for the Wilderness. Looking back, I think I made the right decision and if I had to do it over again, I would make the same one.”
Is it harder to keep your place in the lineup now that you’re established it or was it harder to break through and get to this point?
“For me personally, it was harder to earn it. I guess it's a little bit of a little bit of both, but I think now that I've earned that, I'm just doing what I can to help the team in whatever way I can. I'm still trying to just be a role player and do what I can with whoever I'm playing with at the time. It's been Kobe (Roth) and Jackson (Cates) the past few weeks here. We've been doing really well and hopefully we can continue to do that throughout the playoffs.”
Where do you feel you’ve improved the most over the two years when you were fighting for ice time? What has allowed you to have the success you’ve had the last two seasons?
“Just being consistent. A lot of my first two years, I would play well and then I would take a couple days off. I just wasn't being as consistent as I should have been. So I think that and just being better defensively in our zone and making strong plays, getting the puck out of the zone and into the next one. Just being a guy that the coaches and everyone can rely on night in and night out is where I've improved the most.”
Have you thought at all about next season and what you’d like to do? Your class is in a unique position with that extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Coaches have talked to us a little bit about it. I think we’d like to come back, most of our senior group has talked about it and would like to come back for another year. Obviously this season is still going on, so our focus is on that, but it’s in the back of our minds.”