FARGO, ND -- If folks around the Northern Plains suddenly heard a great booming of thunder, it might not have been one of the many storms that crawl their way over the prairies.
It was very likely the collective cheer coming from Fargo, N.D., home of the newest Clark Cup champions, the Fargo Force. On May 19, the Force defeated the Youngstown Phantoms for their first United States Hockey League title in their 10 years of operation.
“There are very few times in life you can be the first at something. That was in our players’ minds,” said head coach Cary Eades, who won his second Clark Cup in four seasons, also winning in 2015 with the Sioux Falls Stampede.
The Force had three previous kicks at the Cup, falling in the Finals in their first and second seasons (2009 and 2010), and again in their fifth, 2012-13.
“It’s very gratifying for our ownership and management team to come out on top,” added Eades. “For any team, your goal is to win a championship. Our players fulfilled that dream.”
It was largely a new Force team than had previously been seen, as Fargo started the season with only six players that saw significant time in 2016-17. The work began last May, with the USHL Draft. The Force dug deep there, picking its eventual leading scorer Grant Hebert (54 points in 57 games) in the 11th round, 174th overall. The team’s third and fourth leading scorers – Sweden’s William Fallstrom and Denmark’s Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup – were picked in the seventh and 10th rounds, respectively.
When the regular season ended, Hebert was the only Force player in the top 20 of league scoring. In many ways, this was the team without superstars, but one in which every player was expected to contribute. Every skater that played in more than 13 games scored at least one point, and 17 of those skaters were in double digits.
Eades not only saw parallels with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights (whose Nate Schmidt is a Force alum), but the Force as a team saw the Golden Knights as kindred spirits.
“We rallied around their success much of the year, because we had so many second-hand players. With only six returning players coming back, we didn’t want a whole team of rookies,” said Eades. “We drafted and recruited players who had played junior elsewhere or within the USHL – players deemed previously unready or unwanted by other teams in our league who were out to prove themselves.”
Take Griffin Loughran for instance. The Youngstown Phantoms only saw fit to utilize Loughran for nine games last season, before he finished the season in the North American Hockey League. With the Force, he scored 42 points in 50 games in the 2017-18 regular season and then 10 points in 13 playoff games – culminating in his selection as 2018 Clark Cup MVP.
“Loughran and Schmidt-Svejstrup had previously been sent to the NA. Our goaltender [Strauss Mann] had been cut by a team,” said Eades. “These guys all had something to prove. Schmidt-Svejstrup was a pure sniper for us – he led our team in goals  while playing in only 40 of our 60 games.”
The Force worked throughout the year on the chain gang that was the Western Conference of the USHL. Every day, they were pushed, tested, drained of energy and forced to come back the next day focused, lunch pails in hand, and got back to work.
They finished fourth overall in the whole league, with the Anderson Cup-winning Waterloo Black Hawks three points ahead of them and the Omaha Lancers two points ahead.
“There wasn’t much difference among the top teams this year,” said Eades. “Tri-City was beat up and shorthanded, so we got past them in two in the first round. But those Omaha and Waterloo playoff series were just wars. There’s no other way to describe them.
“Those series were junior hockey at its highest level – a lot went into those games, and we made some good plays, got some big bounces and got past those two high-level opponents,” added Eades.
Youngstown started out taking down the Dubuque Fighting Saints, before getting into a knock-down, drag-out four-game series vs. the U.S. National Under-17 Team.
Scheels Arena in Fargo saw a split of Youngstown and Fargo, before the teams got a week to both rest and sharpen up for the required two games at Youngstown’s Covelli Center.
“We hadn’t played Youngstown since the second weekend of the year, so we were unfamiliar with each other,” said Eades. “They were 17-3-2 in their previous 22 games and they were 6-1 in the playoffs. Every one of our four games were competitive and came down to one or two plays per game.”
The depth shown in the regular season continued into the playoffs, as did the power play success. Fargo clicked at 24.5 percent in the regular season, leading the league, and were 18.5 in the playoffs. No other team came close to Fargo’s 12 power play goals.
Another strength for Fargo was its defense, which was both defensively and offensively potent.
“We really feel we had the best defensive corps in our league. Every one of our guys killed penalties, and we had four of the top 11 scoring defensemen in the league,” said Eades. “That was a huge part of the team we didn’t draw a lot of attention to, or brag about, but that was a huge, huge key to our playoff run.”
This group was led by third-year Force blueliner Evan Bell, a Penn State recruit. He led a group that included two who had previously played for other USHL teams – Robbie Stucker and Ty Farmer – fitting the “secondhand” theme of the Force.
“Secondhand” quickly became “first overall” as the Force came home to Fargo with the Clark Cup. Their city loves the Force, with 3,090 average fans per game, good for third in the league.
“We had a neat welcome home, with a police escort into town. That ended at the arena, and then we had an event on Monday, a nice championship gala with an autograph signing, photos, an intro of the players,” said Eades. “Most of the players are already on their way home, or have left. We’re on to the next tryout, in less than a week.”
He did say that the Force will not be rebuilding the way it had to following the 2016-17 season.
“A lot is still unsettled, but we do have the potential to have a fairly good nucleus,” added Eades. “We’re expecting returning players to be in the double digits.”
Garrett Van Wyhe works the puck along the wall during the Clark Cup finals Game 4 vs. Youngstown. Courtesy Photo / Fargo Force
Courtesy Dave Dermer / Fargo Force
Courtesy Dan Hickling / Hickling Images / Fargo Force