Anders Bjork powers Irish national championship aspirations
Tobias Hoonhout | Thursday, April 6, 2017
Junior forward Anders Bjork has never been one to shy away from the biggest moments.
Thrust into a situation as a freshman on a team that lost 11 seniors the year before, the forward played in 41 of the team’s 42 games and came to life in the playoffs, recording five points in Notre Dame’s six games.
He burst onto the national and international scene as a sophomore, leading the team in scoring with 12 goals and 23 assists. He was named MVP of the bronze-medal game at the 2016 World Junior Championships, scoring twice in an 8-3 U.S. win over Sweden.
And this year, as the unquestionable leader of Notre Dame’s relatively youthful forwards, he’s been the guy who does it all.
Over the course of Notre Dame’s final season in Hockey East this year, Bjork stepped up in practically every big matchup in which the Irish have skated. He had a goal and two assists when the Irish split a series with Minnesota Duluth back in October; scored twice, including the game winner, in a comeback conference win over then-undefeated Boston College; and lit up Providence over four games with two goals and four assists.
And in the NCAA tournament, he has turned it up another notch: Against No. 1 seed Minnesota, Bjork scored twice, including the game winner, as the Irish came back to win, 3-2. Notre Dame (23-11-5, 12-6-4 Hockey East) then came up against Hockey East rival UMass Lowell, who had trounced the Irish, 5-1, a week earlier in the Hockey East semifinals. While many wrote the Irish off, Bjork simply produced when it mattered, earning the primary assist on all three of Notre Dame’s goals, including his overtime dish to sophomore forward Andrew Oglevie for the game winner.
“It was crazy. … The defenseman on me dropped his stick, so I had a lot more time than usual,” Bjork said of the game winner. “I just saw [Oglevie]; it felt like he was open for a while.
“We were all just thinking and talking on the bench, focusing on doing the little details right, and if we did that we’d create opportunities and hopefully come out on top. I got an opportunity there, and it was kind of lucky with the dropped stick and everything, and Ogie made no mistake.”
The Northeast Regional’s Most Outstanding Player has been a man on a mission. And now, his team is only two games away from the promised land.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Bjork said on his team reaching the Frozen Four. “We’ve known how good of a team we can be, and we’ve seen it at times throughout the year, but to all be clicking at exactly the right time at the end of the year is a really positive thing, and something that we’re proud of and we’re going to work really hard to continue.”
But Bjork isn’t one to dwell on past accomplishments. While the 20-year old’s career accomplishments are noteworthy, he said his mentality on the coming weekend in Chicago is all about tuning out the noise and staying focused, something he’s done throughout his career.
“It’s obviously the best atmosphere we will have played in this year,” Bjork said. “There will be a lot of exciting things going on, but I think we’re just focused on preparing the same way, and staying level, not getting too high, not getting too low. So I think just preparing the same way is the best way we can approach this weekend.”
Bjork’s ability to consistently perform when it has mattered most speaks volumes to his maturity. In fact, Notre Dame is 22-5-2 this season when he scores a point and only 1-6-3 when he has failed to do so. His ability to make his teammates better has been one of his greatest strengths, and some of the younger forwards like Oglevie, freshman Cam Morrison and sophomore Dylan Malmquist have blossomed into point producers playing alongside Bjork.
For Bjork, being a leader for the team is something he has learned through example.
“I think all the upperclassmen forwards definitely help the younger guys,” he said. “I remember when I was a freshman and sophomore, guys like [former Irish centers Thomas] DiPauli and [Vince] Hinostroza and [Steven] Fogarty and [former Irish left wing Mario] Lucia helped me a lot to develop my game and stay calm. Just the little things they said, I’d try to mimic them, and say the same things to the younger guys that they said to me, just to keep them calm.
“Especially in the big moments, as a freshman or a sophomore, those can be tough, not having as much experience, so I learned a lot from the great leadership we’ve had in the past, and I think all the other leaders on our team have as well. We’re just trying to use that to get everyone on the same page.”
Part of that message has been buying into an underdog mentality. Notre Dame is the only non-No. 1 seed to advance to the Frozen Four, and throughout the season the team always appeared to be the underdog in matchups against Hockey East’s best.
Perhaps no game exemplified this more than the regional final against UMass Lowell (27-11-3, 14-7-1).
“I mean obviously, since we’re the No. 4 seed, we’re going to be labelled as an underdog, but I think we’ve kinda used the underdog label to our advantage,” Bjork said. “We had something to prove, a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, so obviously we knew what position we were in but we used that to our advantage. It helped us a lot [against UMass Lowell]. They took it to us at the Boston Garden so we kind of owed them one, so we just had a little extra inspiration I guess.”
The Irish will have to take on this underdog role again against Denver , the top overall seed in the tournament. But as he’s done throughout his career, Bjork said he is relishing the chance to play in one of the biggest games of his life.
“Obviously they’re a fantastic team, they have tons of skill, speed and they play a full sixty minute game,” he said of the Pioneers (31-7-4, 20-4-3 National Collegiate). “They’re an impressive team to watch, and I think we’re really excited to play them. Playing a team of that skill and caliber will cause us to elevate our game as well, so it should be a good, tough battle.”
For some, Bjork’s role as the spark of this Notre Dame team may come as no surprise. His Irish pedigree is among the best of the best, as his dad Kirt was a 1983 All-American for Notre Dame, totaling career stats of 76 goals and 85 assists.
But Bjork has a chance do something his father never did in winning a national championship, and he is as positive as anyone about his team’s chances.
“I think we’ve seen it at times throughout the season, beating BC or beating UMD or Lowell earlier in the season, that when we play the right way we realize how good we can be,” Bjork said. “We had ups and downs and kind of got into some lulls there but I think the past six to eight weeks or so, when we started to get on a little bit of a roll, we realized how we’re starting to click as a team, and all the guys individually are realizing what their role is and what they have to do to help our team be successful.
“The first time we played [Providence], I think that was one of our best weekends. Providence is obviously a good team, and it was such a hard battle and such an evenly matched game, and to beat and tie them kind of made us realize we had something special here.”
Add on the fact that this year’s championship is in Notre Dame’s backyard at Chicago’s United Center, something Bjork said adds an element of motivation for his team and himself.
“For me, I played in Chicago a lot growing up, and we have a lot of Chicago guys, so it’s crazy,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play at the United Center, so I think the guys are really excited, and obviously you’re going to be excited for the Frozen Four no matter where it is, but it adds a little something extra, and that’s awesome. … I think everyone knew where it was [at the beginning of the year], and we’re the host team, so we definitely wanted to be there as bad as ever.”
The last host team to reach the Frozen Four? Wisconsin in 2006.
The Badgers also happened to win the national championship.
But what does that matter to Anders Bjork and the Irish? They’re focused on their own turn.