To call the college hockey season a long, arduous journey might be an understatement. After skills sessions in September, the regular season starts in early October, meanders to December, takes a break for the holidays, then picks up for a hard, two-month charge into March. The very best will end the season in mid-April, more than six months after they started, by hoisting that coveted NCAA trophy.
For Bob Motzko, that lengthy season couldn’t be more welcome. The Gophers men’s hockey coach enters his second year in Dinkytown with a team that will have 11 freshmen among its 12 newcomers. The Gophers no longer have players like Rem Pitlick and Tyler Sheehy, both first-team All-Americas at one point in their careers. They no longer have Mat Robson, a goalie good enough to leave early for an AHL contract.
Instead, they’ll rely on returnees like the speedy Sammy Walker and the steady Blake McLaughlin — and, of course, all those freshmen.
“We looked like a good hockey team today,” Motzko said Tuesday, two days after a sluggish 2-2 tie with Mount Royal in a penalty-filled exhibition. “… We’re going to keep getting better. As fast as I want to speed things up, you can’t.”
Nope, not with all those freshmen. They need game time to mature, and that starts Friday night in the season opener at Colorado College.
“If I’ve got a wish list, just a good hockey game,” Motzko said. “We’re going to make mistakes, but you have to learn from them. We’re going to throw young guys over the boards in a lot of situations. I’m good with it.”
Motzko also wants consistency, an elusive quality in inexperienced players. He pointed to how a couple of his freshmen have had ups and downs recently.
“Ben Meyers had been terrific in practice,” Motzko said of the talented forward, who had 33 goals and 32 assists in 59 games for Fargo of the USHL last year. “Then he got a little amped-up, a little nervous and the game was a little sideways [with penalties]. Then today he was right back to what we’re going to see.
“Conversely, Jackson LaCombe was really quiet for a week or two, and all of the sudden last week he just flipped the light, ‘OK, I’m here to play,’ “ Motzko added of the defenseman, who had 89 points in 54 games for Shattuck-St. Mary’s last season. “And that’s what he did in the game.”
Multiply those peaks and valleys by 11, and you see the challenge a coach can face.
“It’s that little bit of roller-coaster that you live with when you have freshmen,” Motzko said. “There’s going to be a day when we’re all going to be standing on solid ground together.”
Experience will help, and that’s where the long march toward March comes in. Motzko is confident, given time, that this group will find its way.
“We like this hockey team,” he said. “We’re going to be fine.’’