The holiday season of 2011 delivered seven special gifts to Don Lucia and the Gophers men’s hockey staff. Each gift unique in its own way, some big, some small, others fast. The total package, though, had makings of something exceptional.
Hudson Fasching, Justin Kloos, Taylor Cammarata, Vinni Lettieri, Gabe Guertler, Michael Brodzinski and Jake Bischoff all verbally committed to the Gophers before Christmas 2011, and expectations have been building ever since for their freshman season.
The group had local, national and international success, and they would be counted on to build on that success in a college. Nearly two years after their commitments, the group finally is getting a chance to show what all the hype was about.
“To be honest, I think we were a little bit fortunate that it was such a good class,” said Grant Potulny, Gophers assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. “We had to put a lot of work into these guys on the front end. That was the year we went to the Frozen Four, and we had all those guys committed by Christmas.”
It’s early, but what the freshmen have done through eight games indicates they might be one of the top classes recruited by the Gophers. They collected a combined 39 points in the first month of the season, 16 goals and 23 assists, to account for 40 percent of the Gophers’ points. The 16 goals are 45 percent of the scoring.
Add redshirt freshman Connor Reilly, and those numbers jump to 43 and 48 percent.
Freshmen scored all five goals in last Saturday’s 5-4 victory over No. 4-ranked Notre Dame to salvage a series split. Fasching and Cammarata each had three-point weekends. Fasching was named the Big Ten third star of the week for his efforts. Kloos was one of the conference stars the second week of the season.
“We touched on when the year began, they were going to be put in roles to have success, and were they going to be able to do that early in their careers?” Lucia said. “If they did, we were going to have a better chance to win games and that’s what’s happened so far.”
The unofficial leaders of the freshman class were introduced to media for the first time this week, revealing that they are just as sharp in front of microphones as they are with pucks on their sticks. The first month of the season, the freshmen had to speak through their actions. Team rules restricted media access to the newcomers as they got acclimated to the college game and returning players settled into leadership roles.
Fasching’s youth came through in a nervous laugh when responding to a compliment. Then he was business, as usual. His responses were direct and thoughtful.
Kloos’ leadership was evident with his first few words. He said it’s still early to assume how good this group will be in the long run.
Cammarata explained the unity and humility of the freshman class. Despite their impressive early stats, he said the young group mostly stays quiet and absorbs everything happening around them.
During the stretch of freshman silence with the media, the Gophers upperclassmen routinely praised the contributions of their new teammates. Senior co-captain Nate Condon said that “it’s a surprise’’ to get the sort of offensive production the team has gotten from the likes of Kloos, Hudson and Cammarata.
“But it’s a surprise we’ll take,’’ Condon added.
In return, Hudson, Kloos and Cammarata said the Gophers veterans have been an integral part of the newcomers’ success.
Fasching said he’s just there to clean up after his skilled junior linemates Kyle Rau and Sam Warning.
“We’ve got a lot of good seniors and a lot of good juniors that really showed us the ropes and help us all [acclimate] to being here,” Fasching said. “We’re still the supporting cast.”
The supporting cast includes three (Hudson, Kloos, Cammarata) of the Gophers’ top five points leaders.
Lettieri, Guertler and Reilly will see a lot of minutes up front and should be in the lineup most nights, Potulny said.
Brodzinski and Bischoff already are succeeding as Gophers defensemen who score often, and will be required to play a big role in special teams.
“A lot of us came in wanting to be able to fill [the NHL signees’] roles. I think that might be a little bit of a stretch ’cause those [five] are all guys that signed professional contracts and I don’ think any of us freshmen are ready to do that,” Kloos said.
“So we might have felt a little bit of pressure, but we understand we’re different hockey players, so we’re going to fill a different role that the team needs.”
It appears, so far, that their major role is to pile up points.