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Bemidji State men's hockey: Grand Forks native Matt Carlson feeling right at home in Bemidji

Bemidji State junior defenseman Matt Carlson once considered leaving the game of hockey. He now is regular on the Bemidji State blue line and returns to his hometown of Grand Forks this weekend with the Beavers to face No. 1 North Dakota. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

Matt Carlson's hockey career has been built on hard work and perseverance.

Never a blue chip prospect, the Bemidji State defenseman once considered leaving the game. Now he is a regular on the blue line in his junior season and he returns to his hometown of Grand Forks this weekend with the Beavers to face No. 1 ranked North Dakota at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

"I grew up watching those guys and every kid growing up wants to play for their hometown team - that was me honestly," Carlson said. "I'm at Bemidji State right now and I couldn't be happier. I love this place. It means a lot to me to go home this weekend and play in front of family and friends. It's exciting, but it's more of a business trip from our standpoint and we're going there to get four points."

The weekend will be a hockey showcase in Grand Forks. The Bemidji State women play North Dakota in the WCHA first-round series at Purpur Arena and the North Dakota state high school tournament will be played at The Ralph.

Carlson is a 2005 graduate of Grand Forks Central and played on back-to-back Knights state championship teams. He was never an all-conference or all-state player, so he never viewed hockey as part of his long-term future.

"After high school I didn't know what I was going to do, I was just going to go to college like every other kid," Carlson said. " Then I got hooked up with a couple of teams."

Carlson played midget hockey with the Kansas-based Russell Stover major midgets team and bulked up to 210 pounds by working in a weight training program. Combined with his natural skating ability and 6-foot-2 frame, Carlson drew interest from Fairbanks of the North American Hockey League.

"I went to Russell Stover just to see if I had it," Carlson said. "My next goal from there was to play juniors and once you get to juniors you start wanting to play college hockey."

Halfway through his first year in Alaska, Carlson returned to Grand Forks to tell his family he wanted to play college hockey.

"That following summer I just trained hard and did everything I could," Carlson said. "I showed up to camp in great shape and I just started working towards it. Everything fell into place."

Carlson played for two seasons in Fairbanks and had 26 points in his final junior season in 2007-08. He was recruited by other college hockey programs, but chose Bemidji State in part because of its proximity to his hometown.

The hard work continued when he arrived at BSU - this time in the classroom. He redshirted his freshman season and put extra work into improving his grades to earn his academic eligibility under NCAA regulations.

"At first I was pretty bummed out about it but I think in the long run it's going to help me out a lot. It was pretty tough to sit out that first year," Carlson said. "I've taken some good strides in the last year."

Like the summer he spent in Grand Forks before the productive final season in Fairbanks, Carlson said he put extra effort into his training routine last summer and has paid off in more ice time this winter.

"Coming in this year I had a lot of confidence and obviously when they're (coaches) playing you a lot in different situations you gain a lot of confidence. I feel I'm playing pretty well right now and I know I've just got to keep moving forward because I have even better hockey in front of me. That's what I'm going for."

Carlson has played in 25 games so far this season after appearing in 12 games last season. He scored his first collegiate goal in BSU's 3-2 victory over Ferris State at the Mariucci Classic in December.

"He's had to persevere his whole life as a hockey player," Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore said. "He's paid his dues as a hockey player and he's taken a tough road to the WCHA. I'm very proud what he's accomplished. He's been a very good, very valuable defenseman for us: he's a tall defenseman, he has length and he skates extremely well. He brings a dimension we really don't have."

Carlson is expected to see increased playing time this weekend with defenseman Sam Rendle ruled out for the UND series with an upper body injury.

North Dakota is looking to close in on the MacNaughton Cup regular season championship trophy and Bemidji State, unbeaten in the last five games, is looking to gain ground on the bottom half of the standings.

"It's pretty big obviously," Carlson said of the series. "They're on top of the league and they've got a chance to win that trophy this weekend. It's pretty big for them and we don't want to be out there when they're hoisting it. It's a big weekend for us too. We've been playing pretty good hockey and we've got a chance to move up so we're feeling pretty good."