MINNEAPOLIS — The markings of greatness are scattered round 3M Enviornment at Mariucci, dwelling to College of Minnesota hockey.
A glass case in the principle foyer shows the 2003 NCAA championship trophy. These strolling the sector’s underbelly move banners recognizing Minnesota’s back-to-back nationwide titles in 2002 and 2003. An image within the gamers’ lounge exhibits captain Grant Potulny holding the 2003 trophy on the ice in Buffalo, New York.
Different reminders aren’t amassing mud. Coach Bob Motzko was an assistant when the Gophers twice reached the summit of faculty hockey. Paul Martin, an alternate captain on the 2003 squad and a 14-year NHL veteran, was a graduate scholar supervisor with the crew.
“You possibly can’t assist however be on this program, stroll down the halls and see all of the trophies,” Motzko stated.
Minnesota hasn’t gripped an NCAA trophy in 20 years, a irritating famine for the flagship school program in a hockey-obsessed state. Eleven groups have claimed nationwide titles because the final Gophers triumph, together with Minnesota Duluth, who has received three, and rivals North Dakota and Wisconsin (one every). The Gophers have been shut, reaching the championship sport with the nation’s No. 1 crew in 2014 earlier than falling to Union, and making 4 Frozen 4 appearances, together with final yr, after they had been blitzed 5-1 by Minnesota State within the semis. However 20 years is 20 years.
“I used to be curious myself,” defenseman Jackson LaCombe stated of the lull. “Clearly, they had been shut, however there are such a lot of nice groups. It is a onerous factor to win.”
With the NCAA match starting Thursday, Minnesota has a crew poised for a title push. The Gophers have been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 within the nation a lot of the season and obtained the highest seed within the match. They’ll open in opposition to Canisius on Thursday evening in Fargo, North Dakota (9 ET, ESPN2 and the ESPN app).
Minnesota cruised to the Massive Ten regular-season title and by no means dropped consecutive video games. Two gamers, ahead Matthew Knies and heart Logan Cooley, are high 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, and two others, LaCombe and defenseman Brock Faber, had been nominated.
Minnesota ranks second nationally in targets per sport (4.08). The crew’s younger, dynamic line of Knies, a sophomore, and freshmen Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud are quasi-celebrities, getting acknowledged at Minnesota Wild video games and at different spots round campus. The defensive core, led by LaCombe and veterans who put their professional careers on pause, is “completely different than something I’ve seen,” Motzko stated, and has held opponents to 2.28 targets per sport (ninth nationally). There are inspiring tales similar to that of Justen Shut, who barely performed his first two seasons and was a semifinalist for the Mike Richter Award because the nation’s high goaltender this yr.
The Gophers are gifted and gritty and play an thrilling fashion that has stuffed the seats at Mariucci, the place they’ve the nation’s second-highest common attendance and set a program document for a weekend sequence with 20,755 followers watching them play Michigan. They’ve a homegrown roster that understands what a championship would imply to the state, and key non-Minnesotans who add to the combo.
With out an apparent flaw, they enter the match as a preferred decide to win all of it.
“Our objective in thoughts is to win a nationwide championship,” Snuggerud stated. “Each single man on this crew is aware of that.”
THE FIRST COMPONENT to Minnesota’s championship pedigree was the power to develop outdated. The most effective school hockey groups are veteran laden, however the NHL has more and more plucked youthful gamers off promising groups. The delayed begin to school for a lot of gamers due to junior hockey — 20-year-old freshmen aren’t unusual — provides to the retention problem. Minnesota’s rosters have skewed a bit youthful than a few of its rivals.
When the 2021-22 season ended, Motzko anticipated high defensemen Ryan Johnson, Faber or LaCombe — maybe all three — to go professional. Johnson was a first-round draft decide of the Buffalo Sabres in 2019, whereas LaCombe (Anaheim Geese) went within the second spherical that yr and Faber (Los Angeles Kings) was a second-round choice in 2020. (His rights have since been traded to the Wild.)
“You are going to at the least lose one,” Motzko recalled considering after final season. “And you retain all three. It has been an awesome profit to us.”
Bucci’s storylines to look at within the NCAA males’s hockey tourney
John Buccigross shares the storylines that followers ought to hold an eye fixed out for within the 2023 NCAA males’s hockey match.
The blue line retention is a hyperlink to Minnesota’s previous championship groups, which stored defensemen Keith Ballard, Martin and Jordan Leopold. A second-round decide in 1999, Leopold selected to stay at Minnesota and received the Hobey Baker with 48 factors in 2002. Ballard and Martin starred for the 2003 crew.
The distinction with the present group is it goes seven deep. Junior Mike Koster has greater than doubled his profession factors output with 25 this season, and freshmen Luke Mittelstadt, Ryan Chesley and Cal Thomas are a mixed plus-40.
“They transfer the puck rather well and add expertise to the offensive zone,” Shut stated. “It makes my life quite a bit simpler for positive. The superb factor is so a lot of them are nonetheless so younger they usually’re so proficient already. Me being the oldest man on the crew, 24, gosh, seeing the place a few of these guys are at 18, it is astounding.”
Minnesota’s defensive core is distinct, however Motzko maintains that the crew has an offensive bent. Cooley and Snuggerud, the No. 3 (Arizona Coyotes) and No. 23 picks (St. Louis Blues) within the 2022 NHL draft, have mixed for 39 targets and 101 factors. Their expertise popped instantly, however as soon as they “grew their whiskers,” Motzko stated, and began vibing with Knies and the opposite veterans, the magic started.
Cooley has scored at the least one level in all however 5 video games he is performed, together with a present stretch of 13 straight, and had a five-point interval (4 assists, one objective) Feb. 17 at Penn State. Snuggerud has 15 multipoint performances. Knies, a second-round draft decide of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021, is tied for ninth in targets per sport (0.58) with an NCAA-best seven sport winners.
“That high line is a giant cause the followers are coming; we’re promoting out due to these three,” Faber stated. “They do issues that I may by no means even take into consideration doing, evening in and evening out. There’s a lot chemistry between the three of them, it is loopy to look at.”
Earlier than Minnesota, Cooley and Snuggerud performed on the identical line within the USA Hockey Nationwide Crew Improvement program. They’re each excessive draft picks with promising professional outlooks, however Cooley stated a key was “not coming in being cocky.”
“Now we have a number of excessive expectations for ourselves,” Cooley stated. “We’re simply attempting to do no matter we will on the ice to assist this crew win, finally, a nationwide championship.”
AS COMMISSIONER OF the Central Collegiate Hockey Affiliation, Don Lucia is targeted on the groups in his league, however he nonetheless retains tabs on the Gophers. He has a standing name on Sundays with Motzko, his chief assistant at Minnesota from 2001 to 2005.
Lucia coached Minnesota from 1999 to 2018, reaching 5 Frozen Fours and profitable the 2 nationwide crowns. His greatest groups, like the present Gophers, featured a mixture of seasoned defensemen and dynamic younger gamers, similar to freshman winger Thomas Vanek, who led Minnesota with 62 factors, and freshmen Gino Guyer and Tyler Hirsch.
“They’ve the elements,” Lucia stated of Minnesota’s 2022-23 squad. “They’ve a type of defensive cores that is virtually generational, they do not come round fairly often. Their upperclassmen elected to come back again. Then, very similar to the ’03 crew, they have the particular freshmen. We had Vanek, who scored massive targets to beat Michigan in extra time within the semifinals. [Motzko has] that with Cooley and Snuggerud.
“There is no query they’re one of many groups which have an awesome probability to win all of it this yr.”
After Minnesota received its second title beneath Lucia and the fifth at school historical past, there was a pure inclination to count on extra. However historical past instructed in any other case. Earlier than the 2002 title, Minnesota hadn’t received since 1979.
Different energy applications have had related title gaps. Boston Faculty went from 1949 to 2001 with no championship. Michigan hasn’t received one since 1998.
“Within the ’70s, ’80s, it rotated, however there have been most likely eight or 10 groups that basically had an opportunity to win a nationwide title,” Motzko stated. “In at this time’s period, there are 25 that would win it if they might get in [the tournament]. The depth of faculty hockey is much stronger than it is ever been.”
Minnesota stays the highest talent-producing state for Division I hockey, however there’s multiple top-shelf possibility for elite gamers. Minnesota Duluth received nationwide titles in 2011, 2018 and 2019, whereas Minnesota State and St. Cloud State are the previous two NCAA runners-up.
“Rising up, they weren’t as distinguished of applications,” stated Martin, a local of Elk River, Minnesota. “The TV rights had been solely on for the Gophers. You continue to get a number of the premier gamers [at Minnesota]. It is just a bit bit more durable in at this time’s panorama. However you undoubtedly count on to have a pair extra championships inside 20 years.”
Martin believes the present group of Gophers has an opportunity. Just like the title groups he performed on, Minnesota has star energy unfold amongst positions, age teams and contours.
Being across the gamers each day, Martin sees related bonds to the title groups.
“The power for guys to type of put apart their very own private agenda — particularly these guys, all of them are extraordinarily proficient — for the betterment of the membership, and a chance to win a nationwide championship, is what they’ve grown to do all yr,” Martin stated.
The chance is there, however postseason hockey may be humbling. The sport is “means grittier,” Faber stated, and scores are sometimes shut. Probably the most proficient groups do not at all times win.
“The scary a part of the NCAA match is it is one and achieved,” Lucia stated. “For those who occur to have an off evening, sadly that is the best way it ends. However they’ve put themselves in a great spot. They know it is a particular group, and I am positive if they do not make a deep run, it will likely be disappointing.”
FABER GREW UP within the Minneapolis suburb of Maple Grove and spent many Friday and Saturday nights within the stands at Mariucci. He cherished watching stars similar to Kyle Rau and Nate Schmidt, two in-state merchandise who performed for the Gophers and went on to the NHL.
Regardless of being in diapers for the 2003 championship run, he has seen highlights.
“Once I was a child, video games had been at all times near offered out, scholar part was nice, the band,” Faber stated. “It looks like yesterday, I used to be sitting within the stands, watching them play, cheering them on. It was a dream of mine. It was all I thought of.”
Minnesota video games have turn into an occasion once more, particularly this season. Motzko is adamant that Gopher followers by no means went away.
“We needed to give them a cause to come back again,” he stated. “Publish-COVID, there has actually been an uptick within the scholar involvement. Our scholar part is nothing like I’ve ever seen. The [Doug] Woog period had these sorts of crowds, the Lucia period had these sorts of crowds and now we’re getting them again.”
Andrew Mercado spends dwelling video games within the entrance row of Minnesota’s scholar part, sporting a bleached mullet that he is been rising since 2019. Mercado is from California however turned a Minnesota fan a few decade in the past, after his dad returned from a convention in Minneapolis with Gopher merch.
A hockey fanatic, Mercado started following the Gophers and final yr transferred to Minnesota from a group school. Crowds initially had been smaller as Minnesota welcomed again followers after COVID-19, however Mercado noticed the scholar part progressively fill. This season, he and his roommates routinely arrived for video games two hours earlier than puck drop.
“Once you go to the sport, there’s going to be a buzz, there’s nothing prefer it,” stated Mercado, a senior majoring in English. “My roommates and I, we at all times speak about how if we will get the primary objective and get the constructing going, it is going to be a tricky sport for the opposite crew. We have constructed an surroundings that I by no means thought I might expertise.”
Mercado lists Mason Nevers’ profitable objective in extra time in opposition to North Dakota because the season’s high second. He and his roommates prevented any “artistic spring break journeys” to save lots of up for a possible Frozen 4 go to to Tampa, Florida, and an opportunity to witness historical past.
“Simply understanding how depressing my roommates are, they’re all from Minnesota they usually’re speaking about all their Minnesota sports activities groups at all times allow them to down,” Mercado stated. “After we go to a basketball sport, we all know we’re not going to be the perfect, however we at all times say, ‘We’re a hockey faculty, we’re a hockey faculty.’
“For the scholars, for everybody in Minnesota, it might be nice for us to win a nationwide championship.”
DURING A DECEMBER observe at Mariucci, Motzko glanced up on the solely retired jersey in crew historical past, the No. 8 belonging to John Mayasich. Motzko bought an concept.
Minnesota was headed north to Bemidji for an exhibition sport. Motzko puzzled if Mayasich, 89, was dwelling in Eveleth, the long-lasting hockey city the place he launched his legend by main his highschool crew to 4 state titles. Mayasich got here to Minnesota and earned All-America honors 3 times whereas setting a number of data that also stand, together with profession factors (298), profession targets (144), single-game factors (8) and single-game targets (6).
“The best Gopher of all time,” Motzko stated.
Motzko referred to as Mayasich.
“We’re coming as much as see you, John.”
“The entire crew.”
Minnesota rerouted its journey and met Mayasich on the Eveleth Hippodrome, the 100-year-old rink the place Mayasich and different former Gophers minimize their enamel, together with John Mariucci, whose identify is on Minnesota’s area.
“It was particular to see him,” Faber stated. “Clearly, he is nonetheless such an enormous supporter of us. We’re grateful to put on that ‘M,’ and to have the ability to be right here, such a storied program with such nice alums. There may very well be a bit of little bit of nerves, understanding that each one these guys are watching, but it surely looks like we’ve got so many individuals behind us.”
The allegiances throughout the state are extra divided now. There are too many good gamers and too many good Division I applications. However those that develop up in Minnesota and put on the Gophers’ jersey perceive what’s at stake.
Of the 26 gamers on Minnesota’s roster, 20 are from the state.
“It is all the things,” stated LaCombe, a local of Eden Prairie. “It is the heartbeat of Minnesota, and everybody performs. No matter soccer is in Europe and soccer is down South, that is what it’s up right here for hockey.”
Motzko grew up in Austin, close to the Minnesota-Iowa border, and has spent the previous 22 years teaching in his dwelling state. He led this system at St. Cloud State, his alma mater, from 2005 to 2018 earlier than returning to the Gophers.
The 61-year-old is a hockey lifer, however the previous two seasons have been completely different. In July 2021, Motzko’s 20-year-old son Mack was one in all two passengers killed in a single-car accident wherein the driving force was drunk. Mack had been taking part in junior hockey.
“For what I have been by in my life, this [season] has been nice,” Motzko stated. “I’ve wanted hockey extra now than I’ve ever wanted it.”
Motzko is not one to make massive speeches about massive targets. He prefers the “gradual drip” strategy to messaging, noting that the “boring coach” comes out when outlining the steps to success.
If Minnesota wins a title, Motzko believes it will likely be as a result of the Gophers do not take penalties, commit turnovers or go offsides. However he gives delicate reminders of the bigger goal, like the ultimate phrase on the dry-erase board in Minnesota’s crew room earlier than a current skate: “LEGACY.”
“We have had a very good common season and we have given ourselves an opportunity to win,” Snuggerud stated. “We’ve not achieved so in 20 years and it is our time. Hopefully, we will get the job achieved.”