Carl Ekstrom may have left Union College, but the St. Norbert defenseman was still happy to see the Dutchmen wrap up the Cleary Cup as regular-season champions in ECAC Hockey.

“I still have a lot of good friends there,” Ekstrom said, “and they just won their league, so obviously, they’re doing pretty well.”

Ekstrom, however, is happy to be right where he is, playing alongside childhood friend Johan Ryd for the No. 1 Green Knights, who will play for a championship of their own when they host No. 15 Wisconsin-Superior on Saturday in the NCHA Championship game, looking to keep the Peters Cup right where it is in De Pere, Wis.

“We’re a confident group,” Ryd said. “We’ve been through this before, and the guys are excited to play in front of our home crowd on Saturday. We’ve got a great opponent coming in here, so it’s all positive.”

Ekstrom is still looking to break back into the lineup after an injury sidelined him in early February – “I’m confident we could go to him tomorrow if we needed to,” said Green Knights head coach Tim Coghlin – but Ryd has been a key player for St. Norbert all season long. Heading into Saturday’s game against the Yellowjackets, Ryd is the Green Knights’ leading scorer with 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists) in 22 games, and has delivered the winning goal in six of St. Norbert’s 21 victories this season.

“Personally and individually, I’ve been given more responsibility,” Ryd said. “We had a couple of big seniors who graduated. I’ve been trying to work hard and do the best I can to develop, and take one step at a time. So far, I think it’s gone pretty well. I’m really happy with the confidence that I’m given by Coach and the other guys on the team”

For Coghlin, it’s the continuation of a process that began the summer after Ryd’s freshman season, when he played in just three games for the Green Knights.

“Johan is probably, in all the time I’ve been doing this – which is going on 20 years – he’s one of those special young men who did more to improve himself in the offseason than almost any other player I’ve ever had,” Coghlin said. “He came back as a sophomore and was dynamic. Now you’re seeing, as a junior, what he’s doing, and as I’m sitting here today, I can probably predict that he’s going to be our team captain next year. Those are just the steps that he’s been able to make on his own.”

In addition to his contributions on the ice, Ryd also played a key role in bringing Ekstrom to St. Norbert, where he scored a goal and added five assists in 17 games before his injury. The grew up playing together in Sodertalje, Sweden, a little more than 20 miles outside of Stockholm.

“We were best friends for the last seven or eight years,” Ryd said. “We played hockey together when we were 12 years old, and we became close then. We have another friend [Carl Hagelin] who goes to the University of Michigan right now, and he inspired us to start this whole process of looking for schools in the U.S.”

That process – aided by St. Nortbert associate head coach A.J. Aitken’s trip to a scouting combine - led Ryd to St. Norbert, and initially brought Ekstrom to Union, where injuries sidetracked him early on. When the time came to play again, he quickly realized that St. Norbert was the place for him to be.

“I had surgery my freshman year,” Ekstrom said, “and I just couldn’t get my spot back when I came back for sophomore year. I made a decision to transfer, and having Johan here was pretty much an obvious choice.”

Having a hometown friend as a teammate has been a boost for Ryd as well, especially since home is more than 4,000 miles away.

“It’s a lot more fun when you can share the experience back home with someone who has the same story,” Ryd said.”

For Ryd, Ekstrom and the rest of their St. Norbert teammates, the story is now reaching its climax. To repeat as NCHA Champions, the Green Knights will need to defeat the only team to shut them out this season. From there, it’s on to the NCAA tournament, where St. Norbert will look to bring home its first NCAA Championship since 2008 after coming up painfully short in overtime last season against Norwich.

It’s uncertain whether Ekstrom will be back in the lineup to chase the championships, but after watching his teammates come so close last season, he’s eager for his opportunity.

“Obviously, I wanted to play,” said Ekstrom, “but I think it was a great experience for me to just be a part of that and to see how the guys handled everything. I think that prepared me a lot for this season.”

“It’s a good ride so far,” Ryd said, “and a good journey, and we’ve got big goals ahead of us, so I’m looking forward to that a lot.”