Trio of California natives serving as NCAA D-I captains for ’19-20 season
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The volume controls might be set at different levels, but Niko Hildenbrand, Nick Rivera and Nate Kallen all can command a locker room.
Their formal titles on their respective teams only serve to confirm that.
The trio of seniors gives California three NCAA Division I hockey captains for the 2019-20 season, and two of them are leading top-five ranked teams. When one adds in the four schools that have alternate captains from California, the state has formal leaders at nearly 12 percent of the 60 Division I programs.
Here is a closer look at the trio, each of whom has been selected a scholar-athlete in his respective conference multiple times:
Massachusetts’ Niko Hildenbrand
Hildenbrand, who is from Vacaville, found himself in a bit of an uncomfortable situation in 2016. Committed to Massachusetts, he could only sit and watch as the Hockey East program changed coaches, ultimately hiring Greg Carvel. The forward had played three years of junior hockey already, and it was fair to wonder if he would have a spot?
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Hildenbrand said. “There wasn’t a coach for a short period of time.
“It was one of those things I wanted to stay, stick to my commitment of where I said I was going to go. I breathed a big sigh of relief when I got a call from Coach Carvel and he said, ‘We’re happy to have you, and we’re going to honor the past coach’s commitment.’”
As it turns out, Hildenbrand was a huge part of Carvel’s plans for the program, which after winning eight times in 2015-16, only picked up five W’s in the duo’s first season.
“We underwent a huge culture change, and Niko was a guy we identified as someone who lived life as a Division I player,” Carvel said. “By that, I mean his commitment to his studies and his teammates, his sacrifice, his fitness level. He’s a model Division I athlete, and he does everything the right way, with integrity.”
Hildenbrand, who primarily played for the Santa Clara Blackhawks, said he did what he’s always done.
“I’ve always been taught to go toward responsibility instead of running away from it,” he said. “I was given the opportunity to come here, so I had to stick to my process and do the things I thought I do well – working hard, keeping my nose down. That translated well for other guys and the coaching staff.”
In his second season, UMass improved to 17 wins. Before last season’s magical run to the NCAA title game, Hildenbrand was selected captain.
“I immediately thought, ‘How am I going to affect the guys around me?’” he said. “I’ve grown much more comfortable speaking up, especially this year. For me, it’s always started with leading by example. I’ve always truly believed you can’t have a leader who doesn’t walk the walk.”
His walk has been pretty good during the Minutemen’s resurgence. He had 17 points last season and has played in 104 career games through three seasons.
“He’s a very reliable penalty killer, and we count on him in defensive situations,” Carvel said. “He’s consistent. He’s very physical and he can make plays offensively.
“We have had young teams and needed some maturity. Niko has provided that from Day 1.”
Minnesota State’s Nick Rivera
The forward from Pacific Palisades is a two-year captain for WCHA powerhouse Minnesota State, and a durable one at that. Rivera has played in 116 career games entering this season despite favoring a rambunctious style.
“He has never wanted anything he wouldn’t earn, whether that’s in the classroom, the weight room or on the ice,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “He provides energy and encourages it and demands it from others. He’s a hard-nosed guy who keeps others honest.”
Rivera has hit double figures in points every season in college, topped by last season’s 19. But one goal stands out – his overtime winner to finish Minnesota State’s rally in the WCHA title game in March. Those accomplishments aren’t his focus, however.
“I’m on the penalty kill, I play hard minutes,” he said. “Competing and working hard are my bread and butter. I don’t have the skill and skating ability of a lot of players.”
Hastings said Rivera brings a unique blend of qualities to the Mavericks.
“There are very few times you have to ask guys to take it down a level, but Nick goes all out every day,” the coach said. “He wants to be at the front of the line, be a leader. The on-ice versus the off-ice is like heads and tails. His edge turns into compassion. He’s willing to help others and share the praise.
“That’s a reflection of his family. They embrace the positive.”
Rivera not only cited his family but many of his peers for helping him develop his leadership. Those range from former Los Angeles Jr. Kings captain Ryan Siroky, former Omaha (USHL) teammate Jimmy Schuldt, former Minnesota State teammate CJ Suess, and current Mavericks co-captain Marc Michaelis.
“My dad (Rick) does a good job managing people in a professional way,” Nick said. “All of these leaders I played with taught me something by how they approached the game and their teammates. It’s given me a good road map.”
Ferris State’s Nate Kallen
Kallen’s progression to captain has been marked by growth on and off the ice.
For one, the San Diego native has grown two inches at Ferris State, to 6-foot-1. He’s also dedicated himself to weight training, going from 180 pounds to 195.
The results have been measurable – Kallen has gone from seven points to 17 to 24 in his three seasons manning the Bulldogs’ blue line. He’s also been remarkably durable, playing in 111 games through three seasons.
“Nate is respected by his teammates for his hard work on the ice and in the weight room,” Bulldogs head coach Bob Daniels said. “He is an outstanding student who represents us well in the classroom and in the community.”
Kallen’s 24 points were third most on Ferris State last season, and he led them with four power-play goals. Always gifted offensively and possessing good skating ability, he’s become an every-situation stalwart for the Bulldogs, and one who is extremely disciplined. He’s never taken more than four minor penalties in a season in his college career.
The next step is to help the Bulldogs return to the NCAA Tournament after averaging 12 wins the past three seasons.
“It’s a great honor to be chosen (captain),” Kallen said. “It’s also a challenge I look forward to. There’s a lot of room for improvement from last year.”
Patrick Khodorenko, Michigan State – The senior from Walnut Creek was one of the top players in the Big Ten last season, piling up 18 goals and 37 points. That came after seasons of 18 and 32 points. He’s played in 107 NCAA games through three seasons.
Tyson McLellan, Denver – Wearing an ‘A’ for the second consecutive season, the speedy senior center from San Jose has played in 98 games despite missing more than half of his sophomore year because of a shoulder injury. He excels in the circle.
Matt O’Donnell, Vermont – A senior from Fountain Valley, O’Donnell was a co-captain last season and has played in 79 consecutive games. He has 33 points over the past two seasons, tops among Catamounts defensemen.
Jake Slaker, Michigan – A San Diego native, Slaker brings plenty of production and leadership: he’s had 21 or more points every season of his NCAA career, and he will be wearing an ‘A’ for the third year in a row. He’s played 110 games in his first three seasons.
Photos/UMass Athletics (Hildebrand), Minnesota State Athletics (Rivera), Ferris State Athletics (Kallen)
— Chris Bayee
(Oct. 31, 2019)