For 22-year-old Duluth native Andy Welinski, nothing in his hockey career thus far has been able to top his time skating on the outdoor rinks of the Glen Avon Hockey Club.
The rinks, located on Woodland Avenue, are a block from where Welinski grew up. He still visits to help push pucks, interact with the mites and squirts, and reminisce.
"It's awesome, even being down there myself it brings back so many memories," he said recently. "I can see myself looking up at the UMD hockey players who used to go there.
"Being a block away from an outdoor rink and being able to come home and put the bag on my shoulder and walk down there are some of the greatest memories I've had."
As great as his Glen Avon memories are, Welinski is hoping to replace them at the top of his list this season, his last playing hockey in his hometown.
After turning down offers from the Anaheim Ducks organization to leave home and begin his professional hockey career this offseason, Welinski is back at Minnesota Duluth to captain the team he watched growing up to an NCAA championship.
"Once you play your first minute of college hockey, (a national championship) is a goal and you are going to get that consistently through any team. That's my bucket list thing at this point," said Welinski, whose Bulldogs open the regular season against Bemidji State at 7:07 p.m. Friday at Amsoil Arena. "On paper, it looks tremendous. Our team looks great and I can't wait to get going and follow through with that."
On paper, the Bulldogs are legitimate contenders this season with 21 players back from a squad that finished a goal short of the Frozen Four. Because of that, the Bulldogs were not only picked to win the NCHC, but they are in the top three of both preseason national polls. Twelve of the 50 voters in the United States College Hockey Online.com poll voted UMD No. 1 -- Boston College edged the Bulldogs for the top spot -- while seven voters had UMD No. 1 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll. UMD is behind Boston College and Boston University in that poll.
But Welinski didn't need any preseason polls or endorsements from coaches and media to know his team has the potential to do great things. He saw that potential at the end of last season when the Bulldogs fell 3-2 loss to Boston University in the NCAA Northeast Regional final in Manchester, N.H.
It was a devastating loss for UMD, but more so for the 6-foot-2, 205-pound defenseman because he had to watch the Terriers net the game-winning goal while in the penalty box. After 36 minutes without a penalty, Welinski was called for a controversial hold at 15:37 of the third -- the only penalties prior to that were a slash and coincidental roughing calls.
Welinski was a second away from being released when the Terriers struck.
"We played really well in the NCAA tournament. We had a really good game against the Gophers and going into BU, it was a very even game the entire time," Welinski said. "It's tough to have, I don't know if you want to call it a lapse or what, but it happens. That's unfortunately how some games have to end."
Whether it was the injuries, illnesses, suspensions and resulting fatigue that caused the Bulldogs to slide from first place in the NCHC at Christmas to fifth by the end of the regular season, the early exit from the NCHC playoffs or the final five minutes of the regional final, Welinski said he and his teammates were unable to finish the 2014-15 season how they wanted.
If Welinski had forgone his senior season and signed with Anaheim, he would have left a lot on the table, he said.
As he weighed his decision of whether to turn pro or not, Welinski said he couldn't help but think about the future and the possible regrets of passing up an opportunity to play one more year of college hockey and captain what he calls a special group.
"My dream continues of being able to just play hockey at UMD and being able to grow up here, too," Welinski said. "To also be recognized as a leader among your teammates is something that is really important to me. I'm going to take every step that I can to make everyone else's experience great. I think that's the role of being a leader."
Welinski, who was an assistant captain last year, was a unanimous pick by his teammates to be captain this season, coach Scott Sandelin said.
Like the previous captain, Hermantown native Adam Krause, Welinski is a Northland native. What Sandelin likes about Welinski is he's a quality person with good character. He works hard, leads by example and picks his spots when he speaks, the coach said. Welinski, who has 18 goals and 58 career points at UMD, also possesses one of the team's best slap shots.
Sandelin said at the start of the 2014-15 season, he didn't believe Welinski would return for his season year. But now that he's back, Sandelin is having a flashback to the 2010-11 season -- you know, when UMD won its only national championship -- when defenseman Mike Montgomery decided to return for his senior season rather than turn pro.
Sandelin said Montgomery's return gave the Bulldogs an added boost of confidence because of the type of person he is, and he's seeing the same effect from Welinski's decision.
"It's huge and it tells you what kind of kid he is and how he didn't want to leave this program like that, losing to Boston University last year," junior wing Austin Farley said. "He wants to win a championship here in Duluth. He's from Duluth and brings confidence. He's a guy everyone looks up to."
While Welinski wasn't in a hurry to leave Duluth, the potential of this team pushed him over the edge in terms of his decision-making.
"I like the one more year of experience our group has," he said. "It seems so far away right now, but I think it's going to be important to make our guys realize it starts from Day 1. That process to get (a national title) starts on Day 1. You can only get there by going step-by-step throughout the whole season."