The first member of the 2019-20 Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team made his NHL debut on Friday night, April 23, at Madison Square Garden in New York, but it wasn’t any of the four Bulldogs who signed NHL deals last spring.
No, the first Bulldog from the 2019-20 squad to play in the NHL is also the first member of the 2020-21 Bulldogs. That honor belongs to Jackson Cates, the now-former UMD junior center who suited up wearing No. 59 for the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday against the New York Rangers.
Cates, an undrafted free agent, signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Flyers 10 days earlier. Centering wingers Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Oskar Lindblom on the fourth line, Cates finished with 11 minutes and 19 seconds of ice time in his NHL debut, going 5-for-8 (63 percent) in the faceoff circle. He also put three shots on goal — no points — and finished even in plus/minus. The Flyers lost 4-1.
“I’ve only had one practice with the team, but I’m not too worried about that,” Cates said Friday prior to his debut during a video call with reporters. “I’m just excited to play my game, get to know (my linemates) more and see where the game takes us.”
Cates, 23, of Stillwater, Minnesota, recorded 27 goals and 37 assists for 64 points in 96 career games over three seasons at UMD that included two trips to the NCAA Frozen Four and a NCHC Frozen Faceoff title and national championship in 2018-19. He opted to sign with the Flyers following a career year of 11 goals and 16 assists as a junior.
Cates was one of three Bulldogs to sign NHL deals the week after UMD’s 2020-21 season ended with a loss to eventual national champion Massachusetts in the semifinals of the 2021 NCAA Frozen Four at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Senior wing Nick Swaney signed with the Minnesota Wild and Cole Koepke joined the Tampa Bay Lightning. Both Swaney and Koepke, draft picks who are starting their pro careers in the American Hockey League, are still awaiting their pro debuts.
Jackson Cates’ younger brother, Noah, is a 2017 fifth-round draft pick of the Flyers. Noah Cates elected not to join his older brother in the NHL just yet and instead elected to return to UMD as a senior captain in 2021-22.
The four Bulldogs who signed NHL contracts after the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season were junior center Justin Richards (New York Rangers), senior defenseman Nick Wolff (Boston Bruins) and junior defensemen Dylan Samberg (Winnipeg Jets) and Scott Perunovich (St. Louis Blues), though none of them were allowed get into any games once the 2019-20 NHL season restarted in hubs in Toronto and Edmonton over the summer.
Wolff, Richards and Samberg have all begun their pro careers this season in the American Hockey League — though Samberg was on the Jets’ taxi squad initially — while the 2019-20 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner Perunovich is out for all of 2021-22 with a shoulder injury.
Jackson Cates was the 11th former Bulldog to appear in an NHL game in 2021-22. There are 10 former Bulldogs currently on active NHL rosters or taxi squads as of Friday night.