Sawchuk embraces final season with the Minotauros

Steve Silseth/Special to MDN Minotauros’ Nolan Sawchuk (4) shields the puck away from a defender in an NAHL game played earlier this season.

Once undersized and overlooked, but not anymore.

Minot Minotauros assistant captain Nolan Sawchuk has flourished from being the prospect nobody highly coveted to becoming a reliable two-way defenseman who is making a profound impact in the NAHL Robertson Cup Playoffs.

“He kind of flew under the radar,” Minotauros head coach and General Manager Marty Murray said. “There were teams in his own backyard that overlooked him and passed over him, but our scouting staff – Chris Lonke in particular – saw something that he really liked. (Sawchuk) came in and played on our top pair last year and is now one of the top defensemen in our division for sure.”

The 5-foot-11, 171-pound defender from Burnsville, Minnesota, has five points in seven playoff games, which leads all defensemen. Sawchuk’s two postseason goals have been extremely timely as well.

The first turned out to be the game winner in a dire must-win Game 4 in the first round against the Aberdeen Wings. He followed that up with an emphatic slap shot insurance goal in the third period of Game 5 to keep the Minotauros’ season alive.

Steve Silseth/Special to MDN Minotauros defenseman Nolan Sawchuk (4) loads up a slap shot in an NAHL game played earlier this season at Maysa Arena in Minot.

Minot has used that momentum to take a 2-0 series lead on the Austin Bruins in the second round.

It’s been apparent this postseason that what Sawchuk might lack in size, he can make up for it with his smarts.

“He is a student of the game,” said Minotauros Assistant General Manager Lonke, who is also part of the scouting staff. “He has a great hockey IQ and intelligence.”

Lonke noticed this while coaching his high school team in Minnesota.

While Sawchuk averaged a point per game his senior season at Burnsville High School located just outside of Minneapolis, Lonke was 40 minutes away coaching the New Prague High School boys hockey team.

However, being in different divisions, the two schools never played each other. It was a family tie that helped Lonke uncover Sawchuk. His father, Darrin Sawchuk, was a former head coach of the boys hockey team at New Prague High School before Lonke took over.

Sawchuk only made it to the Class AA Minnesota hockey state tournament once in his high school career – his senior year. So, when Burnsville lost to eventual state champions Wayzata in the first round at state, his excitement of reaching the elusive tournament was unpleasantly replaced by the anxiety of still having an uncertain future.

“After my high school career, I wasn’t really sure where I was going to go,” Sawchuk said. “I came up to Minot for a week and practiced with the team after my high school season. They seemed to like me. But, I went into the draft not knowing where I was going to go. Thankfully, Minot drafted me and it has been all uphill from there. It has been everything I have ever hoped for in junior hockey.”

Sawchuk was drafted in the second round with the No. 43 overall pick by the Minotauros in the 2016 NAHL Entry Draft. Fourteen defensemen were picked ahead of the left-handed shooting blueliner.

Proving his talent and worth were undervalued, Sawchuk was one of the most productive newcomers in the league last season with four goals and 28 assists.

Among rookie defensemen, Sawchuk finished tied for fifth in most points, tied for fourth in most assists and accumulated the second-best plus/minus at plus-28.

“He fitted in right away as a rookie,” Lonke said. “I’m not going to say I was surprised, but you just never know. I think because of his intelligence he was able to play at that pace right away. Then, he learned how to play better over time.”

As Sawchuk got comfortable on the ice here in Minot, he also found his second home off of it.

“It was weird at first,” Sawchuk said about living with a host family. “It takes a little bit of time to get used to it. But, once you are used to it, all the families here are so welcoming to open up their homes. We are very thankful for that. It’s just like another family now. I have two little kids in my house, so to be a role model for them is really cool.”

Following a successful debut season in Minot, Sawchuk headed back home to Minnesota during the 2017 offseason.

“It’s a lot of training,” Sawchuk said. “Right after the season you take a few weeks off just to recoup and recover, but after that I trained 4-5 days a week last summer and skated 2-3 times a week. You are really just trying to get into shape and get ready for the next season.”

Sawchuk picked up right where he left off. He scored two goals and provided 28 assists during the 2017-18 regular season.

That consistency landed Sawchuk an opportunity to play collegiately next season with the University of Massachusetts Lowell, an NCAA Division I program.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Murray said. “He is undersized and he looks a little awkward when he skates, but he has been a really consistent player for us for two years… He is just a great kid. He sharpens your skates, he comes in during the middle of the afternoon and cleans the locker rooms. He is just one of those guys, being a 20-year old, that we will miss next year. Hopefully, somebody else will be able to take his place.”

Statistics don’t tell Sawchuk’s full story. His presence in the locker room will also be greatly missed.

“How I have seen him develop is his poise and how confident he is,” Lonke said. “His decision making is faster and better, which should happen obviously. But, I have also seen his leadership. He is kind of a quiet kid, but I have seen his leadership – especially this past year – starting to take shape as well.”

There is a reason why Sawchuk has an ‘A’ on his jersey.

How long he will be able to hang onto his Tauros’ sweater before hanging it up for the final time remains to be seen.

Minot is one win away from reaching the Robertson Cup semifinals for the first time in franchise history. Game 3 and, if needed, Game 4 take place this weekend at Maysa Arena.

A trip back to Sawchuk’s home state of Minnesota awaits if the Minotauros advance to the next round.

This playoff farewell tour with the Minotauros is a journey Sawchuk doesn’t want to see come to end, especially with what awaits him once the season is finally over.

“I’ll be going back home and I actually have a couple of surgeries to do,” Sawchuk said. “I’m getting surgery on my hips, so this summer is going to be a lot of rehabbing to make sure I’m ready to go for the coming years at college.”

Playing with pain is just what hockey players do. Nothing would ease that pain more than hoisting the Robertson Cup in two weeks.

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