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Iron men: Bemidji State’s top defensive pairing munching big minutes with big impact

For the Bemidji State men’s hockey team, Elias Rosén and Will Zmolek serve Iron Man-esque roles just as important as Tony Stark’s to the Avengers.

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Senior defensemen Elias Rosén, left, and Will Zmolek are the iron men of Bemidji State's blue line.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI – Elias Rosén and Will Zmolek aren’t powered by arc reactors.

They don’t possess custom-fitted electromechanical suits of armor that can power flight or blast repulsor beams from their palms. But for the Bemidji State men’s hockey team, the Beavers' top two defensemen serve Iron Man-esque roles just as important as Tony Stark’s to the Avengers – dependable contributors capable of bailing out the Beavers time and again.

“Will is so strong,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. “They’re different types of defensemen, they’re different types of players. Will is just – he's just a strong man. Rosie knows how to control the situation out there.”

Bemidji State’s lead defenders have logged massive minutes this season. Zmolek has averaged 26:36 of ice time per game, ranking him second in the nation and first in the CCHA. Rosén ranks third in the conference and 11th nationally. Both players have also eclipsed 30 minutes on two occasions this year – Zmolek skated for 30:33 in the Beavers’ first matchup with North Dakota and 30:43 in their second matchup with Michigan Tech, while Rosén spent 31:08 on ice in the same game against the Fighting Hawks and 31:29 in a Saturday loss to St. Cloud State.

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Bemidji State senior Will Zmolek (4) shoots the puck to score during the third period against St. Thomas on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

“The minute-munching players are going to be defensemen,” Serratore said, “because they can. It's hard for a forward. If a forward’s playing low 20s, that's high minutes for a forward. But some of these defensemen like Rosie and Will, I mean, when they're sitting there touching 28, 29, close to 30, that's amazing.”

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Performing in such heavy increments isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but Bemidji State’s twin pillars wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Taking care of our bodies is a big thing,” Zmolek said. “With playing so many minutes, sometimes shorter shifts help keep us going. Obviously it's fun, too, to play heavy minutes. It's always fun to get out on the ice and go out there and play.”

“It's always fun to play those big minutes,” Rosén concurred. “You want to play those in the late games, and you want to be a contributor to both defense and offense, and that's what we've been doing this year. And it's been really fun. But in between games is more – it’s just get some sleep and rest as much as you can during the week, and just trying to make the most out of it on the weekends.”

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Bemidji State senior Elias Rosén (28) controls the puck during the third period against St. Thomas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Bemidji State has had excellent defensemen come through the program before – including some who have become fixtures in the NHL – but none have absorbed a volume of minutes in a single season quite like Rosén and Zmolek.

“Those guys, they're strong, they’re experienced,” Serratore said. “There's a lot of things that have to go into it. And they've got the mental makeup to do that. But I don’t think there's any question, we haven't had defensemen eat those kinds of minutes. Brad Hunt didn't, I know that. … Zack Whitecloud, his sophomore year, started eating a lot of minutes. But I don't think there's anybody in that high 20s (range) like those guys.”

Rosén and Zmolek are skating in their fourth season together after both joining the Beavers in 2019. The chemistry they have developed enhances their individual skills, while extensive knowledge of each other’s strengths helps them complement each other out on the ice.

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The Beavers celebrate Will Zmolek’s (4) goal in the second period against Michigan Tech on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, at the Sanford Center.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

“Over the last four years, we connected with each other,” Zmolek said. “Going off him, he takes his chances up in the offensive zone, I know I have to stay back, and vice versa. He's done a terrific job offensively, and his defensive game has gotten way better over the four years.”

“We bounce back off each other,” Rosén said. “And it doesn't have to be every time we play with each other, every minute. Will takes so many minutes with the freshmen as well, and he teaches them how to do everything right. He's such a reliable piece back in the defensive zone, (and) that means I can take care of more pucks in the offensive zone.”

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BSU’s durable blue line will match up against Lake Superior State this weekend at 7:07 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 9, and at 6:07 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Sanford Center.

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The Beavers celebrate Elias Rosen’s (28) first-period goal against Lake Superior State on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

Christian Babcock is a sports reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer. He trekked to Bemidji from his hometown of Campbell, Calif., after graduating from the Cronkite School at Arizona State University in 2021. Follow him on Twitter at @CB_Journalist for updates on the Lumberjacks and Beavers or to suggest your favorite local restaurant.
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