Captain Niko, reporting for duty By Ryan Ames

Photos by Collegian Photo Editor Caroline O'Connor and Collegian Staff.

There are only seven upperclassmen on the 2018-19 Massachusetts hockey team.

Niko Hildenbrand is one of them.

The junior forward enters his third year in the program and brings experience to a very young UMass squad. This year’s version of the Minutemen ranks as the seventh-youngest team in the nation.

On April 20, Hildenbrand was named one of the three captains for this season — along with Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro — and will be counted on to lead this largely inexperienced UMass roster.

With the upcoming added responsibilities in mind, Hildenbrand used this past offseason as a chance to improve in more ways than one.

“I focused a lot on the little things in my game, not necessarily the big things that get all of the hype,” Hildenbrand said. “It's the little things, footwork, it's getting quicker in different areas so it went really well for me and I'm really happy with where I'm at right now.”

Hildenbrand’s training went so well that he shed 10 pounds from his frame.

“I think it was [getting] quicker, speed,” said Hildenbrand on the motivation to trim down. “I didn't necessarily put a huge premium on it but it was kinda just the way my diet worked, the way I ate, the way I trained and it kinda just all fell into place.”

The Vacaville, California product is a big proponent of maintaining a healthy diet and credits that as the main reason for his transformation over the summer. Minutemen coach Greg Carvel even described Hildenbrand as “a streamlined version of last year.”

A mainstay on UMass’ third line last year, Hildenbrand chipped in 17 points in 36 games played. He doubled his goals-scored total from four to eight between his freshman and sophomore seasons and is looking to continue the upward offensive trajectory his third time around.

“I think that's a big part of my game that I want to step up this year,” Hildenbrand said. “I think I made a step from my freshman to sophomore year and now I'm looking to make an even bigger jump. That was something that I worked on this offseason, making sure those little skills are where I want them to be, so I can go on the ice and be that scoring guy and help the team in that way as well."

Off the ice, the 5-foot-10, 182-pounder wants to maintain a similar attitude toward his teammates and hopes to be a resource for this year’s eight-man freshman class, specifically.

“I think that me changing who I am just because I got something is not how that should work,” said Hildenbrand. “On the other hand, it is something where I do have to take a little bit more responsibility for things, whether it's guys, whether it's myself, whether it's people looking up to me type of thing, and I'm totally comfortable doing that.

“I think I need to take it upon myself to make sure that those [freshmen] are comfortable and that they know exactly what's going on and what's expected from them here,” added Hildenbrand.

Carvel has spoken highly of his newly-appointed captain in the past and appreciates the versatility he brings to the Minutemen.

“He’s a hard guy, he plays heavy, does the little things, he blocks shots [and] scores the odd goal,” Carvel said. “I get mad at him when he thinks he’s something different than that. That’s why he’s the captain because he’s able to lead vocally, and on the ice and I think he’s as important as anybody on this team this year because he’s got to lead this group through everything he does.”

Expectations are noticeably higher this season in Amherst because of the promise much of the underclassmen possess. Makar’s decision to return to UMass and forgo an opportunity to turn professional with the Colorado Avalanche comes hand-in-hand with the added excitement around the Minutemen.

Much like his mindset toward being the captain, No. 19 feels staying even-keeled is the most logical approach to dealing with the buzz.

“I don't think it's something that we feel is a burden on us, necessarily,” Hildenbrand said. “We know it's there, the expectation, but we're not going to change what we do, the way we play, our standard, nothing is changing out of any of that.”

UMass won’t be successful without strong guidance from its battle-tested players. Through hard work and perseverance, Hildenbrand has risen as an important and dignified voice in the Minutemen locker room.

Should UMass come about significant success this year, Niko Hildenbrand might not be the first name that pops into one’s mind when searching for key contributors, but the Minuteman captain will undoubtedly play a critical role in executing the standard Carvel and company have come to expect.

Ryan Ames can be reached at rames@umass.edu and on Twitter @_RyanAmes.

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