Tensions existed between the UND hockey and football teams in the late 1980s.
Gino Gasparini, then the athletic director and men’s hockey coach, wanted to fix that. He tried to get some of the players from each team together and hoped that would lead to fewer altercations between the squads.
Quarterback Todd Kovash and Mark Poolman did their part. They went to the old Ralph Engelstad Arena and started to drive the Zamboni.
For Poolman, a farm kid from Warren, Minn., it was the first time he had ever seen a hockey game.
It didn’t start smooth for him, either.
His first attempt on the Zamboni, he missed a two-inch strip about 30 feet long. Gasparini laughed and had him get back out there. Eventually relationships with the hockey staff — including assistant coach Dean Blais — blossomed.
Blais left UND in 1989 and returned as head coach in 1994. During his second year as head coach, there was an open position for an athletic trainer. Blais and Jim Rudd, the head of sports medicine at UND, gave Poolman a call.
Poolman, an athletic training major, returned to his alma mater in 1995, and in the past 20 years, he has become an important piece to the North Dakota hockey program.
He has been the team’s main athletic trainer for that entire time period. And for roughly the last eight seasons, he’s added the role of being the strength and conditioning coach for the team as well.
“He’s a guy who can do it all,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “He’s a guy who never says no to anything. When a job comes up and there’s something to do, he’s the first person to do it. He brings passion. He’s such a positive guy. Our guys love him. When you think of him doing the strength side of it and the medical side of it, he does a lot, and he does a great job at both. Our guys respect him.
“Put it this way: We’re glad we have him and we want to keep him around for a long time.”
Early in his college days, Poolman didn’t have an idea of what he wanted to do after graduation. He admits that he was focused on football.
But after he sustained a broken thumb, everything changed.
“That’s when something clicked,” he said. “I became interested in the sports medicine side, injuries and how you heal. I started taking advantage of the education and understanding more.”
Upon graduation, he moved to Dubuque, Iowa, briefly before coming back when Blais called. Poolman will never forget the start of his time at UND.
His third game was on Oct. 20, 1995 at Boston University. The Terriers raised their national championship banner that night. Minutes into the game, Boston University forward Travis Roy missed a check and went head-first into the boards. The impact caused the cracking of his fourth vertebra, leaving him quadriplegic.
“I can still picture it,” Poolman said. “I can still remember looking down the boards and seeing his arms going down.”
Poolman didn’t handle Roy that night, but wasn’t deterred from working in the field.
“If anything, it strengthened the idea, because I was nervous,” he said.
During the next 20 years, Poolman was on the bench for two other games where a player suffered a broken neck — UND’s Robbie Bina in 2005 and Denver’s Jesse Martin in 2010. Bina missed a year and a half, but eventually returned to the lineup and is now playing professionally in Europe. Martin never played again.
Bina, who played high school hockey in town, suffered his broken neck at the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five. Poolman didn’t see what happened, because he was attending to an injured Brady Murray in the tunnel with team doctor Greg Greek.
“Some guys yelled at me to get on the ice,” Poolman recalled. “I didn’t know who it was or what happened. Halfway out there, I recognized it was Robbie. I knew it was something serious, because Robbie wouldn’t stay down like that.
“It could have been really bad and it turned out wonderful. The fact that he’s still playing is unbelievable. It’s fun to check in on him in the summer when he comes back. To think of everything he went through, that’s a neat story for me.”
Dealing with injuries
More often than not, Poolman is working with smaller injuries.
So far this season, 13 of UND’s 27 players have missed games due to injuries, but none have been season-ending.
Poolman works closely with Greek, the player and the coaching staff to determine when a player is ready to come back.
“There’s a lot of gray area,” Poolman said. “The first question is whether it’s dangerous to come back. If it’s dangerous, that’s an easy no. If it’s a concussion? No, absolutely not. That’s black and white.
“There are some orthopedic injuries that you can play through. That’s individualistic from player to player. You need to take so many things into consideration: What position do they play? What time of year is it? Is it a freshman or a senior? All those things come into play. The coach has an awful lot of say, but it’s usually the player, the doctor and the coach.”
Through the years, numerous players have played through significant pain to be in the lineup and try to help the team. win. Many of those injuries often go untold and those outside the program don’t know a thing about them.
“There are a lot of players who get heat from fans and others about not playing well or not doing this or that,” Poolman said. “A lot of times, they aren’t aware of what the player is sacrificing to be out there, the pain and everything else. Sometimes there’s a reason. That’s a frustrating side, knowing what’s going on and why things are happening, but obviously, you can’t say anything.”
After the hockey team’s old strength coach, Jared Nessland, left for another job, Dave Hakstol asked Poolman if he would take over that role as well.
Poolman jumped at it.
“I was excited,” he said. “As an athletic trainer, I’m kind of like a mom. In the weight room, I’m like the dad. I’m more demanding. More intense. I like that side of it. Being a former athlete, I missed the intensity side.”
Poolman has become renowned for tailoring workouts to each player’s specific needs.
“Some guys need to work on injury prevention,” Poolman said. “Some guys need to put on mass. Some need to work on quickness. A lot of what I do is very dependent on the athlete.”
Poolman explained how different it is to train a hockey player than a football player. Football is about strength, mass and being explosive for two-to-seven seconds. Hockey is more cardio and more fluid activity.
Poolman frequently converses with NHL teams to see what type of programs they use, but doesn’t always follow them to a T.
“Just because they do something doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone,” he said.
Consistency behind the bench
Nobody has seen more consecutive UND hockey games than Poolman.
He hasn’t missed a UND game in 14 years. The last time was January 2002, when he was waiting for the birth of his son, Mason.
He has been in Ralph Engelstad Arena for every single game. There was one in 2003 when he didn’t come out to the bench because he was ill and getting IVs in the training room, but he still made it there.
Although he knew nothing about the sport of hockey growing up, one of Poolman’s sons, Tucker, is a sophomore defenseman on the team, and another, Colton, is coming to campus next year to join the team.
“It’s been great working for the three coaches between Blais, Hakstol and Berry,” Poolman said. “They’ve always allowed me just to do my job. The same goes for Jim Rudd and Steve Westering. That’s the most you can ask for from your boss: to allow you to do what you need to help the team.”