The Gophers have had six years to transition fully into the Big Ten Conference, a contentious move that still angers college hockey fans and old-WCHA die-hards.
New coach Bob Motzko had only a couple months.
“This is totally foreign territory,” Motzko said of the Gophers opening conference play this weekend at Wisconsin. “It really is.”
Motzko spent the past 13 seasons coaching St. Cloud State and the five years before that as an assistant with the Gophers. So he’s intimately familiar with the former WCHA teams, as many joined the NCHC along with Motzko’s St. Cloud State back in 2013 when the Big Ten Conference formed.
The coach spoke a lot about that split at the start of the season, admitting to the pessimism that has swirled around the Gophers, whom he said many fans blame for the conference fracture.
“There’s this negativity that just started to fester itself to where all of a sudden, there were just bullets coming at Minnesota, and I used to throw them. I can’t hide from it,” Motzko said. “There’s a lot of wounds from that from the entire hockey community in the region.”
But now that all the teams seem to have not only settled into but thrived in their new conferences, Motzko said it’s time to move forward. For him, that involved two full days of watching film on Wisconsin, trying to familiarize himself with the basics of its power play, forecheck and roster. But ultimately, Motzko said he needs to see the product live to really understand the opponent, meaning it’ll be a couple more months before he’s made the rounds through the new conference.
As for now, he said 90 percent of the Gophers’ time is still spent on themselves.
“We’re not worried about what other guys are doing, really, since we’re 1-3-1,” junior defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf said. “We’ve got to start within our own locker room and figure that out first.”
While the coaching staff might be new to the Big Ten, Zuhlsdorf said the coaches aren’t inexperienced with playing top-level teams. Senior forward Tyler Sheehy said he hasn’t really had to explain much to his coaches, who understand this is a rivalry game.
“I’m sure it’s a little bit of a learning process for them behind the scenes,” Sheehy said. “It’s a little bit different playing Wisconsin rather than playing Duluth or North Dakota. … But they’re going to study just about every team in our conference, and they’re going to get a good grasp on what they’re doing and prepare us.”
The Gophers played both Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota to start the season, as well as another familiar in-state team in Minnesota State Mankato. But persistent penalty issues — that aren’t yet resolved despite meetings, sitting players and even counting penalties in practice — haven’t granted Motzko’s Gophers much success against familiar foes. So maybe this uncharted territory will prove more prosperous.
“We start off with Duluth, and obviously come out of that feeling real good,” Motzko said, referring to a 1-0-1 weekend. “We didn’t play very good in two of these [past] three games we just came through [0-3], but I don’t think that’s an indication of who we are. The truth lies within the middle.”