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Published January 17 2011

USHL: 17-year-old Cooper weighing college options

Brian Cooper’s life has mirrored that of his home state, Alaska. Both are always surrounded by ice, and when compared to their counterparts, are fairly different.

Take Cooper, who at 17 years old, is the third-youngest player on the Fargo Force junior hockey team and is already an assistant captain in his second year with the team.

“He’s a lot more mature than most 17-year-olds and you just don’t see him as a 17-year-old,” said Force defenseman and assistant captain Dan Weissenhofer. “With Cooper, he is a lot more mature beyond his years and he seems to already have it figured out.”

Weissenhofer’s pretty much spot on except for one thing: Nobody knows where Cooper will be playing college hockey.

Once again, like Alaska, Cooper’s decision is a mystery that only has a few clues.

Cooper said he wants to play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to be closer to home. But that’s all he’s saying for now.

“Being from Anchorage, and with Anchorage being in the WCHA, I grew up watching them play the Sioux, the Gophers and Colorado College,” Cooper said. “It is a tough decision because it is your future and you always think that if you make the decision, you want to be happy with it.”

Fargo is case and point. Cooper makes it sound like life in Anchorage is no different than the life of most hockey kids in North Dakota or Minnesota. Hockey is played year-round and in some way, the entire state is involved with the game.

Weekends are spent traveling to different tournaments. Having scouts jot notes and then talk about how you would fit into their system.

Here’s the difference. When kids from Minnesota or North Dakota leave home to play hockey, home isn’t far away. It is a hard sell for some parents, but it is harder when you live in Alaska and your son is only 15 years old.

“My mom of course had her worries, and then she spoke to (Force head coach Jason) Herter when he was an assistant,” Cooper said. “I think she was reassured when Herter told her he left home at 12. That gave her confidence.”

Cooper arrived in Fargo a year ago trying to figure things out. Like trying to crack the lineup and keeping his place. Or like coming back from a mistake and establishing a rhythm.

Accomplishing that meant Cooper had to reduce the mistakes in a game because he has beliefs that most his age might not have: What one learns in a game can be honed in practice, but game experience is the only true test of getting better.

Third-year forward and former Roseau star Nick Oliver said Cooper’s approach is one of the reasons why he is one of the most respected players on the team.

“He knows how to prepare himself and he doesn’t have to always say something, and that’s because of how he prepares during the week,” said Oliver, who is also an assistant captain. “I’ve learned a lot from him on how focused and intense he is. He never stops and he’s relentless. Every game he has that one big hit and it’s something we all notice.”

Speaking of things that are noticeable, there’s the whole college thing.

The Force has plenty of players committed to WCHA schools and to a degree, everyone is trying to make a pitch for their schools. His teammates know choosing a college is not an easy task, but they’re trying to find ways to make Cooper’s choice easy.

Cooper said goaltender Ryan Massa and forward Tanner Lane, both Nebraska-Omaha commits, were sitting across from him at dinner one night. Cooper was next to Colorado College commit Ian Young and was told by Massa he shouldn’t go to CC, but choose UNO.

“I just tell him he wants to hang out with me for four more years,” said Oliver, who has been committed to St. Cloud since he was 15. “That should be all the push he needs right? Really, it is his decision and you want him to make the best decision.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan S. Clark at (701) 241-5548