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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service, Published November 07 2013

Ausmus finding his way on the North Dakota men's hockey team

GRAND FORKS – Gage Ausmus isn’t like the other University of North Dakota defenders.

That’s one reason why the East Grand Forks, Minn., product has been able to find a consistent spot in the lineup early in his freshman season.

While he does have some offensive attributes, Ausmus’ primary role isn’t to rack up points from the blue line. It is to shut down opponents and their top players – a skill that will be tested this weekend as UND travels to take on the offensively potent Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks in a weekend series.

“That’s why he’s a good fit for this defense,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “He’s a little different than the other players on our (defense). He’ll develop into that big, physical shutdown defenseman that’s very difficult to play against.”

That’s a role that opened up this season with the graduation of stalwart Andrew MacWilliam, who is currently playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organization. Though he’s not delivering highlight-reel hits like MacWilliam, Ausmus has helped to fill that void early in the season.

He has played on an all-freshman defensive pairing along with Troy Stecher.

“Gage is learning,” Hakstol said. “He’s found and earned himself a consistent spot in the lineup. He has to continue doing that. We’re seeing good competitiveness out of him. We’re seeing him work to improve his game on a daily basis. That’s what he needs to do as a young freshman.”

Ausmus, a fifth-round pick of the San Jose Sharks, wasn’t exactly sure as a youngster whether he would pursue hockey.

A standout football player, Ausmus also had dreams of playing quarterback for at Minnesota-Duluth, where his father played football.

“When I grew up, during football season, I thought football was my favorite sport,” Ausmus said. “Then, hockey season would come along, and I thought hockey was my favorite sport. Going into high school, I knew that hockey was my favorite sport and what I wanted to do.”

Ausmus started at quarterback for East Grand Forks Senior High as a sophomore and led the team to a section championship, but decided to give up his final two years in East Grand Forks to play for the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“That was probably the biggest down side to leaving EGF early – having to leave football,” he said.

But Ausmus blossomed in Ann Arbor and developed into a tough defender with good mobility. He helped the U.S. Under-18 team to a silver medal in April and got his feet wet for college by playing 27 games against Division I teams a year ago.

That experience has helped ease the transition into the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, Ausmus said.

“It’s been going pretty well,” he said. “Practices are pretty solid and tough. Some of the games haven’t ended up going the way we wanted them to, but everything else is going pretty well.”

Hakstol likes the potential of Ausmus.

“There are a lot of things he’ll grow into as he matures,” Hakstol said.

In the meantime, Ausmus will continue living out his other dream – playing hockey at UND.

“You almost can’t explain it,” Ausmus said. “You grow up dreaming about playing here and now we’re here. I’m living a dream.”

Brad E. Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald