Story and photos by Mark Newman
On the surface, golf and hockey couldn't be more different.
Golf is a genteel game, a dignified endeavor pitting players with a garish fashion sense and ice in their veins, methodically competing in hushed tones.
Hockey is a physically demanding sport, a vein-popping exercise of coordination, finesse and brute strength played on ice in front of thousands of screaming fans.
For Tim Skarperud, the two have always been inseparable.
"I've played both for as long as I can remember," says the Griffins rookie. "My dad was an avid golfer and we would go with him to hit range balls. We'd go from golf to hockey season and from hockey season to golf.
Skarperud is the youngest of four brothers, each born about two years apart. When they weren't getting out the sticks for another round at Grand Forks Country Club, Chad, Matt, Ryan and Tim all loved to play hockey.
"We used to have a pretty good basement hockey game," Skarperud recalls.
"My oldest brother (Chad) and I would take on the middle two. We'd play with sticks and a ball on thin carpet. It was pretty competitive.
Skarperud is a scratch golfer, which means that he is good enough to not carry a handicap and good enough to make par for 18 holes. He actually has been the one-day leader in golf tournaments back home.
"Any time we get together now on the golf course, we razz each other about who's going to beat who," he says. "We're all very competitive. No one wants to lose.
That competitive streak comes from the boys' father, Craig, an insurance company vice president who played basketball at the University of North Dakota (UND), where he is inducted in the school's Hall of Fame. He passed away from cancer in 1994.
"He loved sports -- he was at every one of our hockey games when we were growing up," Skarperud says. "He never said anything technical because he never played the game, but he always made sure that we were working hard.
"That was his motto: work hard at everything you do and make sure you never give up. That's what he did with his battle with cancer. For four years, he fought it, and even when it came back, he never gave up.
Although their father had played basketball and baseball in school, the boys gravitated toward golf and hockey.
"My oldest brother started playing hockey and we all just followed him,"
Skarperud says. "I remember being young and watching him -- he was one of the better players on the team. Growing up, I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Skarperud excelled in both golf and hockey at Red River High School in Grand Forks. His hockey team won the state championship in his senior season and the Red River golfers were three-time state champs.
He eventually chose to pursue hockey over golf. "I always liked hockey better than golf," Skarperud says. "I figured golf was something I could do later in life, whereas hockey's kind of a one-time deal.
Skarperud played a year of junior hockey in Canada, then quit. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," he says. "I actually signed with Omaha of the United States Hockey League, then they traded me to Rochester (Minn.), and that helped make up my mind. I decided to go to school.
Skarperud enrolled at the University of North Dakota for a semester, then started coaching bantams (ages 12 to 13) and discovered that he had failed to get hockey out of his system. "I started missing it, so I dropped out and played junior hockey the second half of the year.
After another season in juniors, he found himself back at UND, this time on a scholarship. He lost a year of eligibility in the process, but he made up for lost time by helping the Fighting Sioux win the 2000 NCAA title in his first season.
"I never thought I'd be playing college hockey at North Dakota, let alone be a part of winning a national championship," he says. "It's something that I'll always remember.
Growing up in Grand Forks, Skarperud couldn't help but be a fan of the Fighting Sioux. In particular, he has fond memories of North Dakota's 1987 NCAA championship team.
"The top line was Hrkac's Circus," recalls Skarperud, whose family had been buying UND season tickets for years. "It was Tony Hrkac, Steve Johnson and Bob Joyce. They were unbelievable together.
In the same way, there was a special chemistry on the 2000 team. Jeff Panzer and Lee Goren, now playing in the AHL with Worcester and Providence respectively, anchored a UND attack that included eight freshmen.
"They helped us see what we needed to be winners," he says. "Those two guys took care of the majority of scoring while we learned our roles. We played well all year long but we kept getting better.
North Dakota beat two perennial powers in the Frozen Four to win the title. The Sioux beat Maine 2-0 in the semi-finals, then defeated Boston College 4-2 in the title game after being down 2-1 going into the third period.
Last year, UND tried to rewrite the history books by becoming the first team in 30 years to repeat as NCAA champs.
North Dakota came back from a 2-0 deficit with four minutes left in the 2001 title game to score twice -- the first on Skarperud's deflection of a teammate's shot -- to send the contest into overtime.
But Boston College, which was making its fourth straight trip to the Frozen Four, eventually prevailed.
Although the team didn't fare as well in his final year at UND, Skarperud had his most productive season. He nearly doubled his point production, recording 21 goals and 24 assists in 37 games.
He joined the Griffins after completing his season with the Fighting Sioux. He notched a hat trick in only his second professional game, a 4-3 victory at Milwaukee last March.
"It was nice to get that first one out of the way," Skarperud says. "I could feel the pressure lift. Nothing was guaranteed about me staying here, so the hat trick helped me relax. It allowed me to just go out and play hockey.
Skarperud went on to score six goals in 10 regular season games, then added a pair of power play goals in five playoff games.
"I always wanted to play pro but I never thought I could," he says. "I never expected to be here, but my agent called Bob McNamara and they were willing to give me a look.
Needless to say, getting the opportunity to go to training camp with the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings this fall was a bonus after re-signing with the Griffins last July.
"The first part of camp, I was in complete awe," Skarperud says. "More than anything, I was watching all those guys in amazement. I don't think I was playing hockey.
It was more than their skills on the ice that impressed Skarperud. "The best part was actually meeting the guys and seeing what good guys they are," he says. "They all treated us really well."
Upon his return to Grand Rapids, Skarperud picked up where he left off. Playing on a line with Mark Mowers and Michel Picard, he scored six goals in the team's first 13 games.
"Tim's a good kid -- he works very hard," says Griffins head coach Danton Cole. "He's learning that the puck doesn't always go into the net, but as long as he's working hard, moving his feet and still getting his shots, he's going to have a very good year.
For his part, Skarperud is pleased to be getting quality ice time.
"Playing with Mark and Pic has been great. They see the ice so well that they're always going to get you the puck when you're open.
Shotmaking abilities honed on the golf course may have little bearing on the ice, but Skarperud knows that -- when the opportunity arises -- it's his job to bury the puck into the back of the net.
There are, after all, no mulligans in hockey.
Skarperud shot a 66 last year to share the first-day lead at the 69th annual Pine to Palm Golf Tournament, an event in North Dakota that attracts golfers from 28 states plus Canada.
He knows it's the little things that spell the difference between making and missing the cut, winning and losing.
"The higher you get in hockey, the more you learn that the game is often about what you do away from the puck, not what you do with the puck," he says. "(Realizing that) has helped me game-in and game-out.
His play has helped not only his consistency, but also his confidence.
"It's a lot more fun to come to the rink when you're playing well and winning," he says. "Guys are loose, they're having a good time. You just have fun playing hockey.
There are no gimmies in hockey, but winning is a whole lot easier when things are clicking. It might even make you think about pulling that 2-iron out of the bag.