Grand Forks’ new mayor will work closely with UND

Part Two: Brandon Bochenski discusses his plans and the life experiences that shaped him

In 2001, the coaching staff at UND and the opportunity to play hockey in the new Engelstad Arena first attracted Brandon Bochenski, Grand Forks’ new mayor, to the University. But as his hockey career grew to a close, the desire to earn his degree and the family friendly nature of the community are what brought him back. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Last week, new Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski spoke with UND Today about returning to the University after 15 years of playing professional hockey and how his decision to earn an economics degree impacted his successful mayoral campaign. In Part Two of a Q&A with the former UND hockey star and alum, Bochenski discusses his plans for UND’s relationship with the city and the path is life took that led to his decision to run for office.

This interview with Bochenski has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you decide to run for mayor?

I felt like we needed to make some changes and that I could make a difference. We needed somebody with business sense who could run and win. I wanted to give back to this community because I felt like the community had given me so much. Coming from a broken home, I could relate to being poor and some of the issues in town, such as drug use, poverty, low home ownership rates and low wages. I felt like my life story was a good guide on how to help the community. I couldn’t sit here and criticize or complain without doing something about it. I’ve always been willing to step up to the to the plate. This ended up being the perfect time and place for me to do that. How many times in life do you get to make a real difference? I felt like this was my chance. I had to step up.

As Grand Forks’ mayor, what do you consider your grand vision for the city?

We need to get some growth – more family growth. We’ve lost families and become more of a transient town. Our home ownership rates have gone down and the public school system has 2,500 fewer students than it did 20 years ago. I want to bring back that family friendly environment. We need higher paying jobs. I plan to economically stimulate activity by being a little more efficient as a city, making it easier for business to come here. Hopefully, that leads to more families, more population growth and more of the entrepreneurship we already have in our community. The broader picture is what I call ‘getting our mojo back,’ which means getting the town buzzing again. It’s working with the pillar institutions in the city – the Grand Forks Air Force base, Altru Hospital and the University of North Dakota. It’s getting them not only work together, but also to be as efficient as possible. It enables them to be forward thinking, but still be on their own with their own unique ideas.

UND’s leadership and the past city administration stressed the importance of building “town and gown” relationships and engaging in projects together, such as bringing UND downtown. How do you view the relationship between UND and the community?

There are programs that city council member Bret Weber is trying to get in the new Nistler School of Business & Public Administration building. One would give UND students an opportunity help with city workforce development from campus. It’s not only bringing UND downtown, but also bringing the city on the campus. We’re really trying to work both ways on this. With the former Grand Forks Herald building, we’re working on a collaboration with UND. I’m also working with UND on ways to bring sports back and to help increase enrollment. I hope this is the first of many, many cross-promotions and marketing efforts we can do with the University.

With his hockey career behind him, Brandon Bochenski developed an interest in business and economics that influenced his decision to run for mayor of Grand Forks. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

You grew up in Blaine, Minn., and played hockey at UND from 2001 to 2004. What attracted you to the University?

There were two main things. The first was playing hockey in the amazing new Ralph Engelstad Arena. The second was Dean Blais as head coach with Dave Hakstol and Brad Berry as his assistants. They were developing a lot of college players into NHL players. They were turning guys into men who were going on to the next level. That was really attractive to me at that point in my life.

Do you maintain connections with your former coaches and teammates?

I talk to Brad Berry from time to time and some of the former UND players who are still in town. During the winter, we do a Wednesday night skate at one of the local arenas. It’s cool to be able to see some of those players who aren’t from around here. When you get done playing hockey, you still want to skate some, but you don’t want anything too intense. You want to play with other guys taking it easy too. They already had that group and invited me to play. We pick the teams at the start of the year and then battle back and forth all winter.

Your hockey career has taken you all over North America, Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. How did you end up playing in Kazakhstan for eight years?

My hockey career took an interesting path. The first year that I turned professional (2004) was the lockout year and we couldn’t play in the NHL. I signed a contract and played in the minors the whole year. The next five years, I spent going back and forth between the NHL and the AHL. My body was starting to get beat up a little bit. I had a bad shoulder problem early on in my career. I was offered a contract to go play over in the KHL on a team in Kazakhstan. At that point, I was starting to look at what’s next in my life. I planned to go there for two years, make some money, come back and start a business career. My wife sold her business in St. Paul and moved overseas with me. Things worked out well. The fans got behind me, the (Olympic) ice sheet was a little bit bigger and the hockey was less physically demanding. I changed my game style and was able to recuperate a bit. I found a lot of success there and ended up staying for eight years – in the blink of an eye.

What was it like living in Kazakhstan? Did you have to learn the local language?

I learned a fair bit of Russian. They have two local languages – a Kazakh language and the Russian language – and they’re not very close. Most in the country speak Russian. English is taught in the schools, so much of the population under 25 knows some English. We had a Finnish coach for a couple of years who didn’t speak English or Russian, and we didn’t have any Finnish players on the team. We had two different translators. The coach would speak Finnish, and one of the translators would translate it into English for the Swedes, Czechs, Canadians and Americans on the team who spoke English. The rest of the team was Russian, which meant the other translator translated from English to Russian. In practice and in games, we had two translators on the bench. Everything just took a long time to communicate, but you had to find a way to do it.

The first year my wife and I were in Kazakhstan, we were in a bit of a shell and didn’t get out much in the community. Over time, we became friends with a lot of local people, and we made friends I still hold dear. We really took in the culture. The Kazaks have a formal dinner they serve to honor and show respect to the foreigners they invite into their homes. We were going to those dinners quite often after eight years.

We had only planned to be there for two years. I signed another contract for three years and then another contract for three years. Things were going well there. The family life was good. Our family became really tight because at times it felt like all we had was each other. Our two older children were born in the U.S. while I was playing in Kazakhstan, and our youngest was born there. We’d come back to the U.S. for three months and spend nine months over there.

What made you want to come back to Grand Forks and UND?

I wanted to come back and finish my degree. North Dakota was always where we wanted to go. My wife Jennifer grew up in Park River. We wanted to be back in this area because she has relatives here and where we have a lot of good memories. We lived all over the U.S. We were in Boston, Chicago, Anaheim and Nashville. Florida was my last stop in the NHL. We spent a lot of time in big cities and they weren’t really for us. We focused on our kids, and Grand Forks is a family friendly, safe place to raise kids. Your kids can go to the park to play – the way things should be. Plus, it’s great sports town. Grand Forks has good opportunities for kids to get involved in athletics and to try a wide variety of activities.

What was it like to return to UND to earn your degree after so many years?

Getting back into student mode after being away for so long was really interesting, and I got so much more out of it as an older student. I enjoyed the classes. I could have done much of it online, but I actually went to class because I liked the engagement with the teachers and other students. As I got more involved in business and started following world and local economies, economics became an interest of mine. When you’re taking accounting classes and you’ve run a business, you’re doing family budgets or you’re buying a house, you can see how important these things are when you come back as an older student.