“The hockey boys are easily the most involved team on this campus,” said Brooke Novak, director of educational programs and transitions, student affairs.
Four hockey student athletes have definitely made an impact and left their mark on campus. Jackson Fuller, Tristan Morneault, Braden Schmitz, and Connor Thoennes have taken the opportunities that came their way and ran with them.
Jackson Fuller, a junior from Bloomington, Minn., is majoring in biology (bioinformatics.) He works as a Community Advisor (CA), as well as at the Information Desk on campus. Fuller is a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), Sports and Recreation Management (SRM) Club, and is the chair of Golden Eagle Entertainment (GEE). Fuller is also a member of the Honors Program. On the side, Fuller is involved with the music department and takes guitar lessons.
Tristan Morneault is a redshirt junior from Dieppe, New Brunswick in Canada. He is majoring in marketing and sports and recreation management. Morneault holds positions as the SAAC president and the SRM club president. He is also a member of GEE, and works at the Information Desk. Morneault is a dual-sport athlete, as he plays hockey and runs cross country.
Connor Thoennes, a sophomore from Coleraine, Minn., is majoring in natural resource law enforcement. On top of being a hockey player, Thoennes is also on the cross country team. Thoennes works part-time at Caribou Coffee in Crookston. He holds an executive position in GEE, and is a member of SAAC, the Natural Resources and Wildlife Society club, and the National Honors Society.
Braden Schmitz is a junior from Devils Lake, North Dakota. He plans to major in business management. Schmitz holds an executive position in GEE. He does work-study for Novak and likes to refer to his position as her “executive assistant.” Schmitz also volunteers in Grand Forks where he coaches youth to high school aged goalies at least once a week.
Schmitz attributes his involvement in GEE to Tristan Morneault.
“I was with Tristan one time and I noticed he had this really cool GEE jacket, and I asked him about it,” shared Schmitz. “He told me about GEE. It was the end of my freshman year, so I went to the last two meetings, and that’s kind of how I got roped into it.”
Two years later, he is in the process of finally getting a jacket.
The “hockey boys” are all avid intramural sports participants. Schmitz has won three intramural championship t-shirts in soccer, broomball, and volleyball. “I think my face is featured the most in that trophy case there, that's a good point to add,” added Fuller.
Sports have always played a big role in each of their lives. Hockey was something that was always on the horizon for Fuller. He says he always knew he wanted to play hockey in college. Fuller took a couple years off of school to play junior hockey so that he could make this dream a reality. He played in Grand Falls, New Brunswick in the Maritime Junior Hockey League, in Superior International Junior Hockey League in Drayton, Ontario, and in the United States Premier Hockey League for the Anaheim Avalanche in California. Finally, he got a call from Steve Johnson, the head hockey coach at U of M Crookston. Fuller says it seemed like Johnson was really building the program and was serious about it. All the factors aligned, so Fuller moved back to Minnesota to start his journey in Crookston.
The other boys weren’t always so sure they would get the chance to play hockey in college. Thoennes and Morneault run cross country, and they said they had a lot more opportunities to run cross country than they did to play hockey. They found the perfect match with the Golden Eagles. Steve Krouse, the head cross country coach, gave both of them the opportunity to play hockey, something that they both are very grateful for.
Schmitz, on the other hand, heard about the hockey program by word of mouth.
“I heard about a new program at U of M Crookston from my dad’s friend and decided to give it a chance,” said Schmitz. “I shot Johnson, our ‘fearless leader’, an email and the rest is history.”
The four attribute a lot of their team dynamic to their coach Steve Johnson.
“He knows what he's doing, he has a goal and everyone else is like ‘alright, we’re following you’,” Morneault shared.
During the 2022-2023 hockey season, when the Golden Eagles lost in the regional final, Morneault thought it might be his last season so he could focus on cross country but couldn’t let go.
“I didn't think I could end it like this, I love hockey too much,” he admitted. “You know, this is a sport I really love playing and I don't see myself stopping just because of another sport, or other things going on.”
“I never cried so much after that final hockey game, which is why it is a little sad, but it’s my favorite memory,” Morneault added. “This is why I love the game so much.”
“This (hockey team) is it for us, it's the pinnacle,” added Schmitz. “It’s a recovery career for some of the players, and it also could very well be the last time we play hockey competitively in our lives.”
Schmitz’s favorite hockey moment, specifically, was after the first game they played against University of Jamestown and won 4-2.
“There's something about that game, it was my first college game and I got to start,” explained Schmitz. “I thought I played well. After that last buzzer, the guys skated off the bench to come give me a high five and a hug. There’s just something about that feeling.”
Thoennes admitted he had a rough hockey career in high school, and it got to the point where he thought about quitting. Then, a new opportunity presented itself when he got to the Crookston campus.
“Being on the ice for the first game with this team, it was a way different environment than high school,” Thoennes recalled. “The guys all cared about the game and wanted to win. This got me back to liking the game even more than ever.”
One of Fuller’s favorite hockey moments was the 2022-2023 ACHA Division II Central Region Tournament send-off celebration on campus. This was the Golden Eagles first ever appearance in that tournament.
Fuller, Morneault, Schmitz, and Thoennes are all very thankful for the support their hockey team has received from the school.
“It makes us want to win even more when we have a decent crowd around us,” Fuller said. “Everyone from Teambackers, to the student workers who run the penalty box, everybody shows up with a positive attitude and it just makes a difference.”
“You're not just another ID number for sure, that's another reason why I came here,” he added. “Everyone knows my name, my professors know my name. I talk to them after the games and in class. That incentivizes me to do better because I have these connections.”
Morneault says his advice to incoming students is to, “keep your options open, never really say no to opportunities that come to you because you learn a lot from them.”
Fuller’s advice is, “You have to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.” A time where this applied was when Fuller was invited to an informational meeting about the school play. He felt out of place, but then the director scanned the crowd and looked at him and said “you’re going to be Romeo.” Fuller says he was just hoping to be “tree number three”, at best. It was a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation, but that is how Fuller ended up playing Romeo in the improv school play “Who Murdered my Sweetheart?” Fuller attributes a lot of his success to “just having a great work ethic, a great level of work, the thing that gets me the furthest, the thing that people in higher positions notice more than anything is effort.”
Schmitz wants other students to know that the key to success at U of M Crookston is to get involved and make connections. He says, “you can’t have too many connections, surrounding yourself with good people will lead you to good things.”
Thoennes believes that new student-athletes should still attend events on campus and take opportunities even though they are busy.
After graduation, each of them have very ambitious plans lined up with their demanding majors, but all hope that hockey stays a part of their lives in some form. For Thoennes, he says it would be nice to continue hockey but it would be a difficult thing to accomplish because when he finishes school he immediately will go to basic training and then enter law enforcement. Fuller’s plan is to play hockey in a professional league in Europe. He would love to experience a new culture and continue his hockey career. Fuller plans to attend medical school and his end goal is to be an orthopedic surgeon. Schmitz is also considering playing overseas, though he knows it will feel like a fulltime job and be demanding.
“I’d be cheesed if I could do that,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz still plans to connect with the game through coaching. Morneault knows that he will always stay in touch with the game he fell in love with and is also considering coaching.