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Published April 30 2010

Taken by Force: Force enters second Clark Cup Finals

This is not how things are supposed to go. Expansion teams are supposed to struggle.

The Fargo Force have certainly bucked that belief with their first two junior seasons in the United States Hockey League.

Starting tonight in Green Bay, Fargo plays in its second straight Clark Cup championship series. That may be spoiling the hockey fans in Fargo.

“I don’t think those fans have a clue on how hard it is to get there and how lucky they are to see the hockey they’re seeing,” said Dean Blais, Fargo’s coach in the team’s inaugural season last year and now a college coach at Nebraska-Omaha. “No one imagined that these types of things could happen so soon.

“But that shows that things were done the right way when the franchise was put together. If people called it luck last year, they can’t say that now.”

Steve Johnson is in his first year coaching the Force, taking over after Blais left for the head-coaching job at UNO.

But Johnson is no stranger to success in this league. Johnson coached the Lincoln Stars for 11 years and has two Clark Cup titles and 470 regular-season wins under his belt.

He said that any sustained success should not be taken for granted.

“You have to enjoy it because there is certainly a lot of change in this league,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of turnover with players, and it’s pretty easy to go from the bottom to the top – or the other way around.”

The Force were an expansion team last year, sort of. Fargo was given a dozen players from the Columbus Junior Blue Jackets, which folded after the 2008-09 season.

But that was still a shaky starting point.

“You look at what they’ve done the last two years, and you have to give Fargo a lot – a lot – of credit,” Green Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “They weren’t really an expansion team, because they were really the Columbus franchise.

“But that Columbus franchise was terrible. They turned them into a contender in one year.”

Cooper, who was named the USHL’s coach and general manager of the year this season, knows a little something about winning quickly during his two years with the Gamblers.

The Gamblers have won 84 of their 120 regular-season games under Cooper, including a sparkling 45-10-5 mark this season.

“In order to get to the finals – in any year – you need two things,” Cooper said. “You need a lot of things to go right, and you need a lot of good players.”

Last year, Fargo rode the goaltending of Mike Lee until guys like Andy Taranto, Matt Leitner, Eamonn McDermott and Chase Grant emerged.

“At the start of the season it was like ‘Oh my, do we have a long way to go,’” Blais said. “But we kept getting better, and by the end of the year we were disappointed we didn’t win the Clark Cup.”

This year, second-year guys like Nate Condon and Corey Leivermann have become go-to guys on offense, and youngsters like Garrett Allen, Brian Cooper and Marek Hrbas have blossomed into solid players.

“At some point, you’re always going to be replacing a lot of impact players,” Johnson said. “You have to hope that the guys you’re replacing them with develop into those same kinds of players.

“We’ve had our share of success these first two years. You want to be playing for the Clark Cup, but it’s tough to get there every year in a league like this.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kerry Collins at (701) 241-5548