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Men's hockey: Gophers open Frozen Four Thursday

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By Tim Leighton

St. Paul Pioneer Press

PHILADELPHIA — Nate Condon has allowed himself to drift back in time this past week, albeit briefly.

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Four seasons ago, when the University of Minnesota center was a freshman, the Gophers ended the 2010-11 season by getting swept by Alaska-Anchorage in the first-round of the WCHA playoffs.

“To really appreciate where we are now, I have to remember where I once was,” the senior captain said.

Today, the top-ranked Gophers (27-6-6) will play former WCHA rival North Dakota (25-13-3) in the national semifinals at the Wells Fargo Center.

It will be the Gophers’ second Frozen Four appearance since 2012, when they lost to Boston College 6-1 in Tampa, Fla., so that playoff loss to the Seawolves seems in some ways longer ago that four years ago.

“Back then, it wasn’t a good time or a situation for anyone,” Condon said. “We were searching for answers, wondering what the heck just happened. There was deep disappointment that we couldn’t deliver for the upperclassmen. There was anger and regret. I don’t like remembering those days, but I know they are important.”

On the cusp of helping Minnesota earn its sixth national championship, Condon shakes his head.

“When you are in that situation, you curl up or do something about it,” he said. “Me and some of the other guys decided to do something about it.”

What followed was the most strenuous conditioning program of Condon’s life.

With plenty of spring semester remaining, players met each morning at 6 for workouts that pushed them to their physical limits as they tried to sweat the bad memories away.

“We hear a lot about what it was like after that season,” sophomore goalie Adam Wilcox said. “After that (season), it was the hardest summer of their life. They didn’t want to be embarrassed (again). You can tell the dedication. (This) is their last shot.”

A seventh-round selection of Colorado in the 2008 NHL entry draft, Condon could have investigated his pro options. But quitting, he said, isn’t part of his makeup.

“I wanted to help fix things,” he said. “I saw that the school was having a tough time selling tickets. That hurts when your classmates aren’t even interested.

“That time, after that loss, were probably the toughest months of our lives.”

Condon has played in a program-record 157 consecutive games and has 40 career goals and 62 assists, including nine goals and 15 assists this season. His 158 games played also are a program record.

The only game he missed during his college career came against UMass in the second game of his freshman season.

“Nate is one of those guys that I could immediately go to for help when I got here,” junior Travis Boyd said. “I’ve always looked up to him because he had been through such a low point. He was a guy that I could trust and follow.”

This week, Condon is hoping to add a second hockey championship to the family’s mantle. His younger brother Ryan, now at Marquette, helped Wausau West win a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association crown in 2011.

“I do get grief because I don’t have one yet,” Condon said. “I’m motivated already to win one. It’s the national semifinals. It’s not too hard to get up for that.”

Condon hopes hockey remains a part of his future, but he isn’t sure what the Avalanche have in mind for him when his college eligibility ends.

If he doesn’t continue playing, he will have finance and accounting degrees from the Carlson School of Management to fall back on.

“This is a bittersweet kind of time,” he said. “We are doing things together for the last time. We have built up to such a great event that you just hope things turn out fine for everyone.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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