Bob Motzko is not a patient man. Since the Gophers began practice this fall under the new coach, he’s been watching for the signs that show his hockey team is finally settled.
“At times, it’s unorganized. At times, they’re not doing the drills right. At times, what you’re saying, they’re not hearing. Then all of a sudden, it comes together. And then you can start to play hockey,” Motzko said. “We got to that point. And I’ve heard coaches say they love the first couple weeks of practice. I hate the first couple weeks. All you’re doing is waiting to get to that comfort level.”
After a rushed start to the season with a home-and-home series with Minnesota Duluth, the Gophers played only two exhibition games the following two weeks. Combine that with full in-season practice time, and the Gophers seem to have figured themselves out more as a team, just in time for a game against old rival North Dakota on Saturday in Las Vegas.
But now it’s the players’ turn to be antsy. The UND game, while competitive compared to the previous exhibitions with the under-18 U.S. national team and Trinity Western University, is still only a single game in a week.
“I’d rather play two games. These one-game weekends are kind of odd for college hockey,” senior forward Darian Romanko said. “Since they were exhibitions, they weren’t too high of pressure, and we were playing all five lines. So it’s been more of a learning experience for us, not really getting after it so much because they weren’t real games. And now that we’re playing North Dakota coming off these two weeks, we’re really going to have to get into it.”
Motzko had been eagerly anticipating these two weeks of exhibitions as well as the North Dakota game, saying it would be more opportunity for practice, as NCAA rules limited the Gophers’ ice time before the UMD series. The new coach needed these past two weeks to implement his faster, more offensive system. And with the three meaningful games against opponents the former St. Cloud State coach is abundantly familiar with, Motzko could spend less time strategizing and more time developing his squad.
The extra time paid off in two 7-1 exhibition victories. The freshmen, especially the young defensemen, gained more experience. The team worked its transition play, its forecheck, its special teams, sharpening all these facets. Motzko said the group had some of its best sessions of the season so far.
But a week into the stretch, Motzko could already tell practice was becoming tedious for his players. So he did all he could to speed up time. He gave players a day off two days before the second exhibition game. This week, the team left for Las Vegas on Thursday, providing another shortened week.
“Try to kill the week and get it behind us because they’re getting to the point where they want games, but we don’t have any games to give them,” Motzko said. “We’re now a team that needs to play games and get into the flow of a season, and we’ve been sitting on the sideline, watching all these other teams play.”