Time after time, Zeb Knutson has bucked the old saying: You can’t go home again.
When it comes to hockey, it seems, all of his roads lead back to his hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
That’s the case again this week when he and the Minnesota State men’s hockey team play there in the NCAA West Regional.
Knutson, an MSU senior, and his cousin, Mavericks freshman Walker Duehr, are the only South Dakota natives natives playing Division I hockey this season, according to College Hockey Inc.
“When I found out the regional (location) and found out the Frozen Four — one’s in Sioux Falls, the other one’s in St. Paul — it thought, ‘It’s my senior year, you know, why not?' It’s kind of been in the back of the mind all year. Now that that time’s here. It’s still kind of setting in throughout the week and it’s getting a little more and more exciting every day.”
The Mavericks, who are the regional’s second seed, will play third-seeded Minnesota Duluth on Friday night following the opener between No. 1 St. Cloud State and fourth-seeded Air Force.
With several family members in Sioux Falls, Knutson’s phone started buzzing as soon as Minnesota State’s national-tournament draw was made public.
Naturally, many were asking about tickets, but that didn’t bother Knutson at all.
“It’s always nice when you get to see your family,” he said. “Family’s everything so when you get to go and play in front of them in — in all honesty — possibly one of your last games, it’s special.
“Hopefully it’s not (the last game), and that’s not what we’re looking at. But at the end of the day, when you allow your whole family to come and see you at this time of year, it’s fun, it’s special and it’s a big deal.”
Knutson started playing hockey in Brookings, South Dakota, when he was 4 years old and moved to Sioux Falls when he was in fourth grade.
“Playing hockey in Sioux Falls was fun,” he said. “It was obviously a while ago, in my childhood. ... In fourth grade, that’s when you start getting into the games, having your own team and everything. I just fell in love with it from there and kind of decided that’s what I wanted to strive for.”
Realizing that he might need to play elsewhere in order to develop his game, Knutson moved to Kansas City, Missouri, when he was 15 and played for the Russell Stover AAA program there. Minnesota State assistant coach Todd Knott, then a junior coach for the United States Hockey League’s Sioux City Musketeers helped arrange a tryout for Knutson.
After three years, Knutson was drafted by the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede and moved back to his hometown. Playing with C.J. Suess, who is still his teammate at Minnesota State, Knutson shined, racking up 110 points, including 60 goals.
“It was a good two years and then it was time to get out of there and grow up a little bit and go to college,” he said.
Knutson didn’t connect in the college game right away, though.
As a freshman at Minnesota State, he played in just nine games and had three points. He was a scratch when the Mavericks played in the national tournament that year, the last time they were in the NCAAs.
Knutson started to find his place the next season, playing all but two games that year. He hasn’t missed a game since. Knutson has 84 points in the last three years, including 34 goals. This season has been his best by far with 42 points, including a career-high 28 assists. He finished tied for second behind Suess in the WCHA scoring race, and was named third team All-WCHA.
“When you look at his freshman year, you’re not envisioning this senior year,” coach Mike Hastings said. “The strides he’s made to get where he is now are significant. You can talk about the numbers, but I like to talk about his maturity on and off the ice.”
Knutson said he came into his final season of college hockey pretty motivated.
“It’s my last year and I think that hit me kind of during the beginning-of-the-summer workouts,” he said. “I sat down for a couple days and really thought about and said to myself, ‘It’s your last year. If you want to go play somewhere else you’re going to have to give it your all. You’re going to have to put the time and effort in.’
“I feel like that’s what I’ve been trying to do, just take it day by day and put the work in every day and make sure I’m not leaving nothing on the table. I’d say it’s worked out pretty well.”
And now he’s bringing it all back home.