Ten were recruited for the job. Five remain to finish it.
The Gophers’ five seniors — Nate Condon, Tom Serratore, Justin Holl, Jake Parenteau and Michael Shibrowski — refer to themselves as the “Fab Five,” often using it with a hashtag on their social media accounts.
The nickname was intended for humor, but there’s a lot of truth to what it implies. These seniors are the first group in program history to win three consecutive regular-season hockey championships. They’ve held a presence near the top of the college hockey polls during this run, and have one Frozen Four appearance.
It’s safe to say, the five remaining players from a group of 10 who arrived on campus in 2010 have finished the job of pulling the Gophers hockey program out of its gloomy seasons.
They’ll begin the quest for the final piece in their rebuilding plan — a national championship — on Saturday evening at Xcel Energy Center. The Gophers, the No. 1 overall seed, and Robert Morris open the NCAA tournament West Regional at 4:30 p.m. St. Cloud State and Notre Dame face off at 8 p.m.
“We helped establish what Minnesota is supposed to be,” Condon said. “It’s great to see it turn around like that. I can’t say we can take all the credit for it. We’ve got a lot of good guys in the classes under us, but it’s nice to go out leaving [the program] better than where it was when you came in.”
The five aren’t stars. Condon, co-captain with junior Kyle Rau, has seven goals and Serratore three. Defensemen Holl and Parenteau haven’t scored this season, and backup goalie Shibrowski has played in only four games. But they have been “character” players who helped revive a struggling program.
Gophers hockey was at a low point when the Class of 2014 came onto the scene. The excitement of back-to-back national championships in the early 2000s had faded behind three consecutive seasons of mediocrity (2007-2010).
A quick fix
The team missed the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season in 2010 and finished below .500 (18-19-2). Coach Don Lucia was in the middle of a health scare, and there was a need to fix the Gophers’ problem fast.
The solution came in a mix of size, skill, strength and maturity, found in a recruiting class that included the Fab Five and future NHL players Nick Bjugstad, Nate Schmidt and Erik Haula, among others. Lucia didn’t give the freshmen much time to adapt to college hockey and it was obvious during their rookie season (2010-2011). They missed the NCAAs once again and finished 16-14-6, but the 10 freshmen who played most nights grew up quickly.
“You could see the ability was there, they just needed experience,” Lucia said. “That’s why the next year all of a sudden we won the league and ended up going to the Frozen Four. … A lot of those guys are real program guys. They really care about the University of Minnesota. That was the most important thing. Their focus when they were here was, ‘I want to get the Gophers program where it needs to be.’ ”
Though several standouts from the original recruiting class are now succeeding at the pro level and played a big role in reshaping the program, the five who remained knew there was still work to be done.
It was during a summer retreat catching fish and playing whiffle ball at a cabin in Alexandria, Minn., that the group and senior manager Alex Kurth set goals for the final season and reminisced on what they’ve managed to achieve.
It was also on the lake that the name Fab Five came to life.
With so many freshmen on this year’s team (seven), it was hard to set expectations. Instead, they set a standard of equality to bridge the gap from young to old. Holl said they left the summer retreat with the goal of being good leaders and making everyone feel welcome, like they had a role on the team.
The plan has produced one of the Gophers’ best seasons (25-6-6) in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
“Everyone wants to be the class that helps out and turns a program around, and we’ve been fortunate to play with some good players throughout our four years here,” Serratore said.
Throughout the season, Serratore has been referred to as the Gophers’ “heart and soul.” The almost 25-year-old forward isn’t flashy, has a quiet demeanor, but is the type of guy teammates rally around because of his work ethic.
Lucia has started to target players like Serratore while recruiting. Their unselfish attitude will help maintain what this group of seniors has set in motion, he said.
“Every time one of the freshmen crack a joke that we’re one of the old guys, we always remind them we’re the five legends of the team or the five legacies that have stuck around for four years,” Condon said.
The co-captain stole the Fab Five nickname from Michigan basketball’s team in the early 1990s and chuckles at the comparison.
However, he’s betting college hockey’s Fab Five can finish the job Michigan’s storied group never could: Win a national championship.