When Billy Exell committed to Minnesota Duluth in the summer of 2015 after leading the Minnesota Wilderness to a North American Hockey League Robertson Cup championship, he knew he'd have to battle for ice time.
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The native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, did just that his first season, playing in only six games.
Now the 5-foot-10, 180-pound junior wing is a speedy staple in UMD's lineup, one that will be leaned on this weekend when the shorthanded Bulldogs head to Hanover, N.H., to take part in the Ledyard Bank Classic on the Dartmouth College campus.
UMD -- minus five players because of the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y. -- opens against Yale at 3:05 p.m. Friday before taking on the host Green Wave at 6:05 p.m. Saturday.
Exell said he and his linemates want to continue to do what they do best -- bring energy to the ice -- and not get away from that. But with four of the team's six leading point-getters playing for Team USA, Exell said everyone on the team is going to have to do a little bit more against these Ivy League foes.
The U.S. begins its gold medal title defense tonight at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Buffalo, N.Y. with five -- count 'em five -- @UMDMensHockey Bulldogs on the roster. pic.twitter.com/HMH2lQBtFx— UMD Athletics (@UMDBulldogs) December 26, 2017
"Maybe we need to get a couple goals, contribute more if we can, but we're going to need that from all lines," Exell said. "We're down a couple of our top scorers. It's going to take some extra from everyone."
Exell made a name for himself as a speedy scorer at Cloquet's Northwoods Arena during his two seasons with the Wilderness from 2013-15. The year they won the NAHL postseason title, Exell posted 17 goals and 25 assists in 67 games, including a four-overtime game-winner in the championship series.
That season earned him offers from Niagara and the Bulldogs, with UMD assistant coach Jason Herter being frank with Exell. Playing time would not come easy. Exell took the Bulldogs' offer anyways and bided his time as a freshman.
Exell played in all 42 games a year ago as a sophomore during the NCHC and NCAA postseason runs, and has been in the lineup for 15 of 19 games this year. He missed four games from Nov. 18-Dec. 2 due to a separated shoulder.
"It's been tough competing, forcing you to work in practice every day," Exell said. "You just can't show up, go through the motions and expect anything. It's got my compete level up a bit, just trying to be focused every day in practice."
Points have proven much harder to come by for Exell than games in his two-plus seasons at UMD. He's totaled 10 in 63 games, but the speed everyone saw at the junior level is alive and well, more so this year than in previous seasons.
Exell explained that confidence is a big reason for that. He knows how and when to use his speed to his advantage, as compared to junior hockey when he could just burn by opponents any time he pleased.
Exell said he noticed immediately when he jumped from juniors to college that everyone could keep up, though, linemate Blake Young somewhat disputes that.
"He's one of the fastest guys on the ice night in and night out," said Young, a senior wing. "He's first on pucks all the time. He'll take that bump to get that puck low to high, wherever it needs to go.
"When he gets the puck, he knows what play to make, he knows where to put it. He's making solid plays out there every night. It's creating chances for us."
Young and Exell's line -- supposedly dubbed the 'YES' line when senior Sammy Spurrell is at center, 'nickname TBD' when it's sophomore Jade Miller -- was one of the team's most consistent lines in the early going this season, until Exell's injury.
That consistency is what coach Scott Sandelin likes the most about the line.
Spurrell said he and his linemates could create more offense by taking advantage of Exell's speed. So far Exell, Young, Spurrell and Miller have combined for just six goals this season, with three coming from Young.
"As a line, we can create more offense by him using his speed, backing off D-men and getting more escapes out of corners," Spurrell said. "He creates space and gets pucks to the net."
This article is written by Matt Wellens from Duluth News Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.