FOR ABOUT a week in consecutive summers, Michael Parks found himself at a Flyers' prospect development camp in Voorhees, N.J. There, at the Skate Zone, he went through drills alongside other NHL hopefuls like Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Brayden Schenn, guys who these days don the orange and black at the Wells Fargo Center.
Parks got a brief tour but never the opportunity to skate at the Flyers' arena. Until this week, that is, when he takes the ice for the University of North Dakota on college hockey's premier stage. With Parks on the right wing, the Frozen Four's Cinderella team will look for another upset win Thursday when it plays No. 1 Minnesota at 8:30 p.m., a trip to Saturday's national title game on the line.
"I don't think the excitement level could get any higher," said Parks, a 2010 Flyers' draft pick. "We're in the Frozen Four and we're playing the Minnesota Gophers, so you couldn't really write a better script."
Although the hometown fans surely plan to keep an eye on touted defenseman prospect Shayne Gostisbehere in Thursday's 5 p.m. semifinal, the Union College star isn't the only Flyers prospect in town this week. Parks, a fifth-round draft pick (149th overall) nearly 4 years ago, is North Dakota's second-best scorer as well as the team's assistant captain.
Parks enters the Frozen Four second on his team in points (30) and goals (12) and third in assists (18).
"He's a strong player," North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. "His effectiveness really goes hand in hand with the pace of his game. When he's moving and skating, he's very hard to handle both in open ice, on the wall as well as at net front. He's got a good stick at net front. He's able to find rebounds and find holes on goaltenders."
A high ankle sprain spoiled Parks' sophomore season - "I'll just say I'm glad that year's behind me," he noted - but a strong offseason in Grand Forks has resulted in a junior campaign full of career bests for the first-line forward. Parks, a second-team, all-league selection in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, scores most of his goals in close proximity to the net and has even garnered a bit of a reputation for his knack of scoring on wraparounds.
Parks said playing the Frozen Four in Philadelphia is "kind of like a bonus for me" because of his status as a Flyers draft pick. He doesn't expect it to add any pressure while on the ice. If anything, he said, it could serve as extra motivation. He opted not to discuss the possibility signing vs. returning to North Dakota for his senior season but said he keeps in regular contact with a Flyers scout.
"It doesn't matter where the Frozen Four would be, it's incredible to get a chance to play in it," said Parks, who participated in Flyers prospect camps led by Ian Laperriere in July of 2011 and 2012. "The fact that it's in Philadelphia makes it a little cooler, a little sweeter for me."
Although a perennial college hockey power, North Dakota (25-13-3) has been the dark horse of this year's NCAA Tournament. It was the last team in when the 16-team bracket was released, a Wisconsin win over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game denying the Buckeyes an automatic berth and securing an at-large bid for UND. North Dakota repaid the Badgers, the No. 4 overall seed, by knocking them out, 5-2, in the first round and advanced to Philly via a thrilling, 2-1, double-overtime win against Ferris State.
Parks, who recorded a goal and an assist in the win over Wisconsin, said the team has embraced its underdog role.
"We were obviously the last team to even get into the NCAA Tournament, but we still felt like we deserved to be there," he said. "You could look at it from we kind of luckily got in or whatever, but we knew that if we got in the tournament we could play with anyone and beat anyone . . . It's been crazy, but what more could you want? It's been fun."
Against an old rival on Thursday, Parks and his teammates will once again have their work cut out for them. Minnesota, the Big Ten's first regular-season champ, enters 27-6-6, and won by four goals in each of its first two tournament wins, against Robert Morris and St. Cloud State.
Regardless of whether North Dakota can pull off one more upset, one of its top players is hoping this week's games aren't his last at the Wells Fargo Center.
"If it's the first of many, that would be a dream come true," Parks said. "It will be very special to play in Wells Fargo. Any time you get a chance to play in an NHL arena with something on the line, and we're playing the Gophers in the Frozen Four . . . I couldn't ask for anything more than that."