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'How could I not' commit? Karsen Dorwart's rise from overlooked recruit to top-line center at MSU

Michigan State's Karsen Dorwart, center, tries to get the puck past Minnesota's goalie Justen Close, right, during the first period on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, at Munn Arena in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Karsen Dorwart, center, tries to get the puck past Minnesota's goalie Justen Close, right, during the first period on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, at Munn Arena in East Lansing.

Karsen Dorwart had just wrapped up skating with the United States Hockey League's Sioux Falls Stampede late in the spring of 2022. He was preparing to make the drive from North Dakota to his aunt's house in Minnesota.

His hockey future seemed uncertain.

The Stampede had endured a rough season in 2021-22, and no player felt it worse than Dorwart. a lightly recruited 6-foot-1 forward with hopes of playing major college hockey. Dorwart struggled early for Sioux Falls with just three points in his first 21 games.

He turned it on a bit in the second half to finish with nine goals and 16 assists in 61 games, but by then any college program that had showed interest didn't have any roster spots left.

Dorwart seemed destined for another year in the USHL — something he had no real interest in. But during his long drive to his aunt's, he received a call from Michigan State's then-freshly hired assistant coach, Jared DeMichiel. Under new head coach Adam Nightingale, the Spartans were in the midst of a remodel and had spots to fill.

Within just a few minutes, Dorwart's future was drastically altered.

"He called me and said that they might want to bring me in this year. And I was just like, 'No way, why?' " Dorwart said. "I talked to Nightingale the next day and we found a date for me to come visit. It all happened within like a week, but I'm very fortunate that it did. I remember coming here (on the visit) and telling my dad on the plane before we got to the hotel that I was going to commit.

"How could I not?"

Both Dorwart and the Spartans are glad he did.

Less than two years later, Dorwart has gone from an overlooked late addition in the recruiting cycle to playing on the top line of one of the nation's best teams. Now a sophomore, Dorwart has 54 points in 68 career games and is the third-leading scorer (12 goals, 27 points) this season for MSU, which sits in first place in the Big Ten and is ranked No. 4 in the nation.

Unique hockey roots

Dorwart's path to MSU started in his hometown of Sherwood, Oregon — a little over 30 minutes outside of Portland. It wasn't exactly a hockey hotbed. But with parents who are both Minnesota natives, hockey was in his blood.

Portland has a major junior team — the Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League — which helped spark Dorwart's interest. His father, Gregg, playing in a men's league didn't hurt either. Dorwart recalls his mom, Janelle, taking him after preschool to watch Portland practice and, at a young age, going on the ice and skating with the team frequently afterward.

"There were only two rinks in the state growing up, but I was always the only kid in my school and town that played hockey," Dorwart said. "We had season tickets for the major junior team and they noticed me when I was young. It was a really cool experience looking up to those guys."

At 14, Dorwart went to San Jose, California, and lived with a host family for two years while playing for the San Jose Jr. Sharks AAA team. Following that experience, Dorwart traveled across the country to Connecticut, where he played for the Hotchkiss Prep School for one season before his second was postponed due to Covid-19.

The rust of not playing competitively for a full year before heading to Sioux Falls certainly contributed to Dorwart's tough start in the USHL. But midway through that season, a lineup change helped ignite his game in the second half. The effects of the move are still being felt these days at MSU.

That was when Dorwart was moved to a line with Daniel Russell, who would also end up at MSU. The two clicked, developing a chemistry that has carried over to their play with the Spartans — again on the same line.

Michigan State's Daniel Russell, center, celebrates his game-winning goal with teammates, from left, Maxim Strb‡k, Karsen Dorwart and Isaac Howard during the third period against Minnesota on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, at Munn Arena in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Daniel Russell, center, celebrates his game-winning goal with teammates, from left, Maxim Strb‡k, Karsen Dorwart and Isaac Howard during the third period against Minnesota on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, at Munn Arena in East Lansing.

“They became really good friends in Sioux Falls, and they spent a lot of time together on and off the ice,” Gregg Dorwart said. “They are very different people. (Russell) is so laid back and Karsen is a little more hyper, but that’s what makes them work together as friends and linemates.”

Dorwart's recruitment to MSU — starting with the surprise phone call — was a whirlwind. The connection came from one of Dorwart's coaches during his time in San Jose. Mike Janda, who served as the director of coaches and was also in charge of player development with the Junior Sharks, is a friend and the former college roommate of DeMichiel.

After hearing Janda affirm Dorwart's character and drive, DeMichiel — who was then still in his previous job as an assistant at Massachusetts — dove into tape of Dorwart. Then after he later accepted the assistant role at MSU, and with a roster in need of another center, DeMichiel thought back to Dorwart's film.

“I brought him up when I first got hired and we felt like he was the best center available at the time, but we’d be lying to you if we thought he’d be our top-line guy at that spot,” DeMichiel said. “We were super honest with him that we would promise him a scholarship and an opportunity, but how he fits in was totally on him. Whatever you get, you earn, and he’s a great example of that.”

An excellent transition

Dorwart's quick commitment and late insertion onto MSU's team could have been overwhelming, but his offseason work eased the transition. He gained 12 pounds in his first six weeks on campus with the help of strength coach Will Morlock. He then found himself centering the fourth line in MSU's exhibition with the U.S. National Team Development Program to begin the 2022-23 season.

Midway through the second period of that game, Dorwart snapped a shot past USNTDP goaltender Trey Augustine — who now stars in net for the Spartans — to score the first unofficial goal of the Nightingale era.

“I was just excited to be in the lineup, to be honest,” Dorwart said. “(Russell) found me and I tried to get it off quick. I remember blacking out after it went in. It was an unreal feeling.”

Dorwart hasn't stopped climbing since.

He used that first goal as a springboard to an impressive freshman season with 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 38 games. And he's reached another level in year two with 12 goals and 15 assists through 30 games for an MSU team that has hovered around the top 10 in the national rankings all season. He centers the top line with Russell and prized transfer portal addition Isaac Howard.

Michigan State forward Karsen Dorwart skates in a game against Ohio State on November 10, 2022 at Munn Ice Arena. MSU won 4-2, and Dorwart scored the team's second goal of the night.
Michigan State forward Karsen Dorwart skates in a game against Ohio State on November 10, 2022 at Munn Ice Arena. MSU won 4-2, and Dorwart scored the team's second goal of the night.

“He’s a rink rat and a creature of habit,” DeMichiel said about Dorwart. “Every time I look out my window around 3:30 he’s chaining his bike up and going down to the room shooting pucks. He’s a hockey junkie with a thirst to be the best and his game still has the ability to grow. He got doubted and under-appreciated in the USHL and it’s given him a chip on his shoulder.”

Dorwart's teammates unanimously voted him to be one of the team's three alternate captains ahead of this season. He quickly increased the partial scholarship money he was guaranteed when he first arrived into a full scholarship in East Lansing.

And with an ever-increasing amount of scouts in attendance this season for the Spartans, Dorwart's game continues to get noticed. NHL teams are showing real interest in the undrafted forward, and he's quickly become one of the nation's more attractive NHL free agents.

“For the most part I try not to focus on it, but obviously I get excited when someone wants to talk to you,” Dorwart said. “I’ll get a phone call and it’s like the Bruins or whoever, but I tell them to talk to my advisor and he’ll handle most of it because I’m focused on winning with our group.”

Gregg and Janelle Dorwart still can't believe the success their son has had so quickly in his collegiate career. They've since moved from Oregon back to Minnesota, and luckily have been able to see the majority of Karsen's games.

They couldn't be more thankful for that June phone call that led him to MSU.

“I’ve never seen him happier. He’s living his dream and every facet of the program is second to none,” Gregg Dorwart said. “It was an immediate yes in his mind, and to see his dreams come to fruition, he was just smiling ear-to-ear when it all came to pass that day.”

Contact Nathaniel Bott at nbott@lsj.com and follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @Nathaniel_Bott

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Karsen Dorwart's improbable rise to top-line center for MSU hockey