Looking at the practical side, Gophers defenseman Seth Helgeson figures there are some benefits to being a senior class of one. With only him and his parents on the red carpet for Saturday's senior night at Mariucci Arena, the team will save a bundle on its flower budget, and the recognition of just one player means the Gophers can drop the puck against Denver that much faster.
Still, Helgeson said, it feels a little strange to be going it alone. He began his Gophers career in 2009-10 with fellow freshmen Nick Leddy, Zach Budish and Josh Birkholz. Leddy left for the pros after one season, Birkholz quit the summer before his sophomore year, and Budish is currently a redshirt junior after missing most of the 2010-11 season because of an injury.
That leaves the stalwart blueliner as the last man standing, a fitting analogy for a player content to do the unglamorous work of keeping the puck out of the Gophers' net. Helgeson has played much of his 114 consecutive games in his team's defensive zone, blocking shots and putting his considerable muscle on opponents. By handling those chores, he frees offensive-minded teammates such as defensive partner Ben Marshall to use their talents.
The 6-4, 215-pound Helgeson has played in every game for the past three seasons. He hasn't scored a point in the past 19, but that is not how the Gophers measure his value. As for Helgeson, he takes his satisfaction in being part of a Gophers renaissance in a career that has elapsed all too quickly.
"I love it here so much I could stay for another four years,'' said Helgeson, who has seven goals and 18 assists in 142 career games. "The first two years, we had our ups and downs. It was hard at times. Over the past two years, it's just been a great reward.
"I'm not going to put up numbers like (Gophers defenseman) Nate Schmidt. I've accepted that role in the four years I've been here. I try to keep the game simple, play defensively sound, play physical and be the backbone of the back end.''
His teammates admire that dedication to an underappreciated craft. The Gophers are known for developing offensive defensemen, and players such as Marshall, Mike Reilly and Schmidt -- who has eight goals and 21 assists this season, second among all Division I defensemen -- draw most of the accolades.
Gophers coach Don Lucia described Helgeson as the anchor of the Gophers' defense, a player whose best work goes unnoticed. According to Marshall and Schmidt, his reliability, toughness and willingness to stick to a strictly defensive role give them the confidence to jump into the offense.
"He plays tough in those hard-nosed areas, and he creates time and space for guys like me to do our thing,'' Schmidt said. "He does a lot of the things that other people don't want to do, and he does it really well. He's got our back at all times.''
They also lauded his leadership, a quality nurtured by associate coach Mike Guentzel. Last year, Helgeson said, he was the oldest member of a defensive corps heavy with freshmen and sophomores. Guentzel urged him to take a larger role in guiding the group; this season, he is an alternate captain, and Schmidt has noticed that his businesslike approach and selfless play have influenced younger teammates.
Helgeson also can lighten the mood, Marshall said, lending good humor and frequent smiles to a team that tends to be serious. He is a leader off the ice as well, as an honor roll student and three-time winner of the Gophers' community service award for his work with young cancer patients and youth hockey programs.
Lucia said that as a sophomore, Helgeson was thrust into a larger role than he anticipated. He grew into it, laying the base for steady progress in his final two seasons. Lucia is a strong believer that upperclassmen must chart the course for their team in the latter part of a season, and he expects Helgeson to be a take-charge player as the Gophers roll toward the playoffs.
Helgeson predicted Saturday's senior night ceremony will be the fastest in program history. He would prefer that the rest of the season be extended as long as possible, allowing him plenty of time to savor his role as sole senior.
"Having it go by so fast, that's the toughest thing,'' Helgeson said. "Reality is setting in. When you're a freshman, you're thinking, 'Four years. That's a long ways away.' Now, it's already my last year. It's probably going to be a little emotional toward the end, but it's going to be great.''