Overlooked by Michigan schools, Christian Wolanin finds the right fit in North Dakota
GRAND FORKS — Craig Wolanin grew up in Michigan and played junior hockey in Canada before embarking on a 13-year NHL career.
But he had heard plenty about the University of North Dakota.
His seatmate on airplane trips with the Colorado Avalanche was former UND star Troy Murray. And every time he went to a Detroit Red Wings alumni event, Dennis Hextall was there repeating a message to his young son, Christian.
"If you ever get a chance to go to North Dakota," Hextall often said, "you just take it."
That phrase stuck with Craig, even though he had no clue where Christian's hockey career would go.
All he knew is that Christian loved playing hockey.
From an early age, he spent hours stickhandling pucks.
Once, when he was about 4 years old, Christian chipped his dad's first NHL goal puck off of a plaque in the garage so he could stickhandle with it.
When his father came out to watch and realized what puck Christian was using, he look at it, laughed and gave it back to him.
"I've never been big into memorabilia, but memories are terrific," Craig said. "The puck doesn't mean as much to me as the memory of him stickhandling around the garage with it and the laughter we get from it. He always loved to play hockey. He always had a passion for it."
By age 5, Christian was on an organized team called the mini-mite Red Wings based out of Troy, Mich. Christian became close friends with a kid on the team named Cameron Johnson. Their fathers co-coached the team and their paths would cross throughout the next two decades.
At that young age, players rotate positions, but those two often ended up as linemates at forward.
Christian couldn't play goalie. He tried one game, but let in about eight goals against the mini-mite Coyotes.
"I cried after every goal," Christian said. "That's when we knew we needed Cam to play goalie."
Away from the ice, the two became close.
During the winters, they spent hours outside of Wolanin's home, skating on a lake. During the summer, they would spend hours in Johnson's basement playing mini-sticks.
"I consider him a brother," Cam said of Christian. "He's more like a family member than a friend."
They were teammates during the 2011-12 season with Little Caesars U18, when the coaching staff encountered a problem.
They were short on defensemen.
The coaching staff, which included Craig, decided to move Christian back to defense. He was starting to plateau as a forward and defense was the position his father played in the NHL.
Little Caesars won a state championship that year and Christian decided to stay at defense.
The next year wasn't easy. As a rookie for the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League, Wolanin said he was "brutal."
"I was so raw and unsure of what to do," he said. "I was brand new at the position and it took me a year and a half of battling confidence, trying to figure it out."
Midway through his second year in the USHL, Wolanin was traded to Muskegon and his game started to take off. He finished that year with 21 points in the last 32 games.
Landing at UND
Even so, recruiters didn't come.
Wolanin had dreamed of playing at one of three area Michigan schools — Michigan, Michigan State or Western Michigan — but none called.
The next fall, he heard from a big-name school for the first time: UND.
"His skating ability was elite," said UND coach Brad Berry, who was an assistant at the time. "As you know, in the NHL and college hockey right now, if you're an elite skater, your chances of having success is great. And obviously, the bloodlines were there, too. Coming from a dad that had a long and storied NHL career, you know he was nurtured in a hockey environment. That lends itself to success. And he checked that last box of being a great person and a hard worker. We thought he'd have a great college career."
Christian started texting Cam, who was a freshman at the time, and asking him about the school. Cam had glowing reports.
In October 2014, Christian made his official recruiting visit. Craig met him in Grand Forks. After taking a tour of campus and the facilities, the coaches organized time for Christian to be with the players.
Craig returned to his hotel and called his old friend, Dennis Hextall.
"Dennis, this might actually happen," he told him.
Dennis repeated what he had always said at the Red Wing alumni gatherings: "If you get the chance, just do it."
The next morning, Wolanin formally received a scholarship offer and accepted it.
"I don't know if I was more thrilled or if he was more thrilled," Craig said. "One thing throughout his life that has been a constant is that he really loves to play hockey. And that's the perfect place to do it."
Development in college
Wolanin wasn't always in the lineup as a freshman. He battled with fellow rookie Hayden Shaw for the sixth spot on a loaded defensive corps — three of which are in the NHL right now.
He battled inconsistency, but developed and had a memorable year.
The team rolled through the season, winning the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Penrose Cup, reaching the NCAA Frozen Four and winning the program's eighth NCAA national championship in Tampa, Fla.
After the final buzzer sounded, Wolanin and Johnson shared a long hug on the ice with their families watching in the stands.
"From my perspective, it was probably the best hockey experience I'd ever been a part of in a sense that there was real joy and an innocence, if you will, in them winning it," said Craig, who won a Stanley Cup as an alternate captain on the Colorado Avalanche. "We had so much fun. It was a terrific experience from the parents to the team to the upperclassmen welcoming in the underclassmen.
"I thought that was the epitome of a hockey team where literally every person on that team contributed in some form or way. If you go back to when Cameron got hurt and Matt Hrynkiw stepped in to Christian being inserted in the final game to Luke Johnson going out and someone having to fill in. They needed everyone. And everyone contributed. It was absolutely terrific.
"And that doesn't even start to make a person fully understand what UND hockey is all about. When we went there, the fans and students and alumni just covered downtown Tampa. It was absolutely amazing."
Wolanin has gone from a sixth or seventh defenseman as a rookie to one of college hockey's premier defensemen as a junior.
He leads UND in scoring with 22 points in 28 games this season and has been electric with his stickhandling and skating ability. He's also vastly improved his defensive game as a junior. The coaching staff uses Wolanin and Colton Poolman against opponents' top lines.
"He's gone through some adversity, but he grew as a person and a player," Berry said. "If you look at his freshman year to now, where he is and how he's grown as a player and a person, it's exponential."
Wolanin and Johnson are still close friends. They've lived together in a basement of a house for the last two years.
If either of them have a tough game, they have each other to talk to.
"We've been through the best together and we've been through the worst together," Wolanin said. "He's like a brother to me."
The right fit
Wolanin's family is able to make it to a few series per season. They are planning to drive to Oxford, Ohio, for the road series there in two weeks.
If they are unable to attend, they watch the games on NCHC.tv or CBS Sports Network — usually with other family members.
Craig says he'd love to watch more of Christian's games in person, but he's happy with how everything turned out.
"His mother and I have always tried to relay to our kids that 'fit' supersedes most anything else," Craig said. "Where you fit is where you belong. Though it would be much easier on us to travel across the state to see him — which we would enjoy and it would be easier on his uncles and cousins — he's where he's supposed to be. He's thrilled with how it ended up. From our standpoint, we couldn't be prouder as parents to be associated with UND. It's a wonderful, wonderful hockey program and school. It worked out the way it was supposed to.
"Dennis was right in the end. Dennis was right."