DULUTH, Minn.—When Nick McCormack arrived on the Minnesota Duluth campus in the fall of 2014, he was part of a six-member freshman class, but the only rookie defenseman for UMD that season.
Four years later, the 24-year-old McCormack is now the only senior on the Bulldogs' blue line, surrounded by five freshmen and two sophomores who are all three years or more younger than him.
"The young guys are such different characters," said McCormack. "I'm just passing down what all the other older guys did for me. When I came in, I was the only young guy. Now it's vice-versa and I'm the only old guy. The role is flipped and it's a lot of fun."
McCormack hasn't seen the ice a ton this season, and the same can be said for senior center Sammy Spurrell since December. However, both have been key pieces for a Bulldogs team that is considered a 98-percent lock for the NCAA tournament and hosting Western Michigan at 7:07 p.m. today through Sunday in a best-of-three first round NCHC playoff series.
And that's not just lip service for a pair of veterans.
Spurrell and McCormack have been there off the ice to help look after a roster that includes 10 freshmen while also being ready to step in and perform at a high level whenever needed, like when the injury bug decimated the lineup in November or when five players were lost to the World Junior Championship in December.
"Like every guy, they are an important part of the team," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "When they've played, they've gone in and done a pretty good job. Those guys haven't played a ton. They've been in and out. But like I've said all year, we have a lot of guys that have been in that situation and when they've been called upon, they've been ready to go. That's a credit to them."
McCormack, a product of Elk River High School, has appeared in just seven games this season — he was robbed of an eighth thanks to a bad game-disqualification penalty handed out by an ECAC official at Dartmouth College — and 31 total over the past four years.
He has six career assists and is still searching for that first collegiate goal. His teammates tried their best to get him that goal last Saturday on Senior Night when McCormack suited up for the regular-season finale, a 4-1 home win over Nebraska-Omaha.
It proved to be one of McCormack's more memorable shifts.
"We had a faceoff with 2:20 left, and (freshman defenseman Louie Roehl) said, 'You might as well stay out here for the whole thing,'" McCormack recalled. "I laughed and said, 'Yeah right.' Sure enough, I did. The guys were trying to set me up for goals. I was posted up at the far blue line. I hadn't really done that before. It's something I'll always cherish, seeing all the guys care about you. It was a good time."
Spurrell, a 25-year-old fifth-year senior from Sherwood Park, Alberta, has suited up 15 times this season, with 12 of those games coming in November and December. He has seven goals and five assists in 92 career games, with two goals and two assists coming in the 29 games he played last season during the run to the Frozen Four.
Sandelin called Spurrell a smart, consistent hockey player who is a solid defensive centerman and an effective penalty killer. Sandelin said he likes Spurrell's constant readiness and that the consistency is always there, whether he's playing on a regular basis or not.
Spurrell has been especially strong the past two seasons centering the fourth line between senior wing Blake Young and junior wing Billy Exell, Sandelin said.
"It's just easy. We just go out there and it just clicks," Spurrell said of Young, Exell and himself — known as the YES line. "We really don't have to try anything too fancy. We just play a simple game. We mesh really well together and have great chemistry. It seems not to matter whether we were apart or not. When we get back together, it's like we haven't missed a beat."
Like McCormack with the defensemen, Spurrell said he's taken on a strong off-ice leadership role with the team's younger players, some of whom came right to college out of high school this season.
Spurrell said at times, "I feel like a dad because I'm so old," even telling stories from his younger days as a Bulldog to help the underclassmen through certain situations.
"I'm not sure if they get anything out of it, but I like to hope so," Spurrell said with a laugh.
For both Spurrell and McCormack, the 2018 NCHC and NCAA postseasons are likely their last days playing high-level competitive hockey.
McCormack said he's open to playing professionally if an opportunity came along, but he's also set to graduate with a degree in communications this year. And thanks to a family connection, he's got a job already lined up at State Farm Insurance, where he's been doing some work the past few summers.
Spurrell, who missed almost all of his sophomore season due to a back injury, completed an accounting degree last year and is wrapping up a major in financial markets this spring. He's finishing the 150 credits he needs for his CPA title (Certified Public Accountant) and since January has been doing financial advising for Northwest Mutual.
He, too, has considered playing pro hockey, but the issues with his back tell him it's time to hang up his skates.
"I think I'm ready," Spurrell said. "It's going to be sad. Hockey has been my first love and it's been with me for 23 years. It's going to be tough to let go, but there is always life after hockey."
Western Michigan at UMD
What: NCHC best-of-three first-round playoff series
When: 7:05 p.m. today/Saturday/Sunday (if necessary)
Where: Amsoil Arena
TV: KBJR today and Saturday/My 9 on Sunday
Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9
Internet: KDAL610.com (audio); nchc.tv (video)