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Brad Elliott Schlossman, Forum News Service, Published March 21 2013

Kristo fulfilling a dream by playing at hockey UND

Danny Kristo started playing baseball with the neighbor kids at the age of 3.

It was then that his parents realized he had a rare competitive drive.

“He was playing with 7 and 8 year olds,” his father, Mark, said. “And one day, one of their mothers came over and talked to my wife because Danny was intimidating to the other kids.”

Not much has changed for Kristo, who has grown into one of the best college hockey players in the nation through his intense competitive drive.

Kristo enters this weekend’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five with 24 goals and 50 points — just two off the national lead. No active college hockey player has tallied more career points than Kristo, who has 159.

On top of that, the Eden Prairie, Minn., product has a knack for producing in crunch time.

Kristo has twice as many goals as anyone on the team when the game is tied or UND is trailing (Kristo has 16 in those situations; Rocco Grimaldi is next closest with eight).

During the first round of the playoffs, Kristo scored two goals in the third period against Michigan Tech — including the eventual game-winner — to lead UND to victory. The next night, he scored a game-tying goal late in the third period.

“Different players have different abilities,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “The real good ones are able to reach that high level through some special talent. Danny Kristo is a very skilled player. His greatest skill is his ability to push to a higher level competitively than the vast majority of people that he’s competing against. He can push himself to that level. I think that’s something he enjoys.

“It’s not a level that you can sustain throughout an entire season, but it is a level you can reach when critical situations arise. I think that one quality is what makes him a special player.”

Kristo surprised many with his decision to return for his senior year, instead of signing with the Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him in the second round.

To fully understand his decision, you have to go many years back.

UND dreams

Yes, playing in the NHL is one of Kristo’s dreams, and something he aspires to. But he’s currently living out another dream by playing at UND.

Kristo grew up cheering for UND ever since he was young. Even when his family moved to Carmel, Ind., during his childhood years, he still followed UND and watched the team whenever he could.

The connection stems from his father’s days as a Bemidji State hockey player. Mark Kristo met UND Alumni Association CEO Tim O’Keefe, who had opened a McDonalds in town. They even played together on a senior team after Mark’s college days were over.

Kristo first attended a UND game in seventh grade. By the time he finished his ninth-grade year, he was a big-time prospect and had verbally committed to UND soon after an unofficial visit.

“I knew that’s where I wanted to go,” Kristo said. “I was a huge UND fan.”

Kristo played his freshman year at Eden Prairie High School, his sophomore and junior years with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and his senior year with the Omaha Lancers in the United States Hockey League.

He took the WCHA by storm as a freshman, racking up 36 points in 41 games and earning rookie of the year honors in the process.

Kristo had 28 points as a sophomore — he missed a month and a half after sustaining frostbite on his toe — and had 45 points as a junior.

After last season, he debated whether to sign with Montreal or return for his senior season. Before making his decision, Kristo talked things over with his family and several former UND players, including T.J. Oshie, Matt Frattin and Brad Malone.

“Osh didn’t even play one game in the American League,” Kristo said, “and he even said, ‘I wish I would have stayed for my senior year. I never got to put a banner in the Ralph.’ Talking to other guys, they said it’s not the same in the pros.

“It’s everyone’s dream to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup. That’s still my dream, but it comes with timing. The best thing for me was to come back here and try to win a banner.”

Kristo also has rounded out his game and is one of UND’s best in any situation — power play, penalty kill or even strength. It’s all fueled by his competitiveness.

“I’ve seen that guy get mad at a game of foosball,” junior goalie Clarke Saunders said. “He’s a very competitive guy and you can’t really teach that. It’s something you’ve got to respect out of the guy. It’s pretty cool to watch how hard he tries and how hard he works.”

Hakstol said he got his first indication of how competitive Kristo was during preseason weight room workouts during the forward’s freshman season.

“I saw how hard he pushed himself in the weight room as a freshman, and how high of a level he’s able to reach when he’s pushing himself,” Hakstol said. “Then, you see the real competitive situations on the ice, even during practice. That’s where they become evident. You know he’s a competitor.”

Kristo, who was emotional on Senior Night, said he’s happy with his decision to finish out his career with his class.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Kristo said. “Ups, downs, roller coasters. But it’s been an incredible journey. It’s been exciting. It’s been everything I’ve always dreamed of.”