Seth Helgeson's birthday is Friday. He will be 20 on the day the No. 15-rated Gophers open their season against Massachusetts on Friday.
The last time U of M fans saw Helgeson, he and the Gophers were losing two of three games to North Dakota in March in a first-round WCHA playoff series at the Ralph.
The 6-5, 217-pound defenseman played in 31 games as a freshman and scored one goal, but it was a game-winner. He scored the third goal in the Gophers' 4-2 victory over the Sioux in the second game of their playoff series. It came with 7 minutes left in the game.
"My summer highlight? I lived up here [on campus] all summer, which I enjoyed a lot even though I am not too far away from home," said Helgeson, a native of Faribault, Mn. "I am only 45 minutes away from home, so it's not that big of a deal. I worked out hard. All the guys did. We had all the guys up here. And we skated. We worked on our game.
"We wanted to come into this [season] doing as much as we could to improve for this year and to get to our goal, playing for that national championship."
Gophers coach Don Lucia said at media day that Helgeson's role this season will be being physical player, and he started playing that way toward the end of last season.
Helgeson doesn't look the part. He looks more like an older Opie, the son of the sherriff on the Andy Griffith Show. He is clean-shaven, no scars, body piercings, tattoos. He seems sincere, earnest. He has more of the boy-next-door look than of an enforcer. He even seems a bit shy or maybe he's just laid-back
"Playing physical doesn't mean to go out there and just have a huge hit," Helgeson said. "Playing in the corners, playing physical. Playing in front of the net, battling. There are just so many areas of the game that you need to play physical in.
"As my role on the team, I need to be a physical presence on the ice. If it is playing against their top line or playing against any other forwards, I just need to be physical on them, battling. Wherever there needs to be battling you just have to have a physical presence out there."
At 6-5, Helgeson certainly stands out. The only other Gopher that tall is Nick Bjugstad, although he is listed at 6-4.
Helgeson weighs 217 but, since he is so tall, he looks pretty average, not huge until he stands up. Sophomore forward Zach Budish is 5 or so pounds heavier while being 2 inches shorter.
Helgeson said once in a while he expects to knock another player down. "You need that every once in a while," Helgeson said. "Get a big hit to get the boys going. That is always a positive. It is me going out there and leading by example because our biggest thing this year is, we all need to play physical. And everyone knows that.
"If you watched the game on Sunday, you noticed everyone was being physical."
Helgeson said Bjugstad especially impressed him with his physical play on Sunday in the Gophers' 6-0 exhibition victory over British Columbia.
"If we get these big guys going, if we get everyone going, I think we could have a big, intimidating team this year," Helgeson said.
Even with 5-8 Jacob Cepis on the ice? "He is a little guy, but he will hit you whenever he wants to," Helgeson said. "He is a guy, you wouldn't expect him to hit you, but he will catch you off-guard and he will smack you right in the mouth."
Helgeson said he has never taken any martial arts classes or anything else that would prepare him for his role. He did wrestle one year in elementary school "But that doesn't even count," he said "It wasn't too fun for me."
He did rumble at times playing during his two seasons at Sioux Falls of the USHL. "Playing in the USHL really opened my eyes because fighting is allowed," Helgeson said. "Five or six times, I probably fought. I remember I did lose one to a lefty and that was my first experience with a lefty. But other than that I didn't lose that many. ... [The lefty] caught me off-guard and I wasn't ready for that."
In Sunday's exhibition and in practices, Helgeson has usually been paired with junior Aaron Ness on defense. Ness is 5-10, 180. Last season his partner was Kevin Wehrs or Brian Schack.
"Aaron is a great player," Helgeson said."With me, I am a defensive defenseman. I think [the pairing] will work out great because he is an offensive defenseman. So he can rush up the puck whenever he wants and I will stay back. I have no problem with that.
"I am all for him going up and joining the rush. I'll anchor the back and make sure nobody goes by. Just practicing with him, I learned a lot. He is a really good player and he has been here for a year longer than I have. So it's a great experience playing with him and I enjoyed it Sunday."
Helgeson took only 16 shots as a freshman, which also explains his one point season total. He played a lot on the penalty kill and finished a plus-4, fourth best on the team. He committed 12 penalties, all minors, which tied him for eight on the team in most penalties.
But enough about last season. Helgeson said the Gophers are really prepared for this weekend. (I forgot to ask Helgeson if he has an special birthday plans.)
"We need to go into the game thinking, not only is this a nonconference game [against] a team we have never seen before," Helgeson said, "but we need to go in there knowing that we need to get two wins. That's all that really counts. We need to start out way better than we did last year."
The Gophers played at North Dakota and then played Denver at home the first two weekends in 2009-10. Their record after those two series was 0-3-1. Minnesota was shut out in all three losses.
Hard to imagine a worse start.
Talking contract with The Don
Don Lucia is in the second to last season on his present contract. But if he is worried about his coaching future, he is not letting on.
"I think every year you coach here is a big year," Lucia said, asked if this is a crucial season for him. "You know what, the reality is we want to be successful and that is no different from when I first came here. We want to have success and we want to have success each and every year."
Lucia became the Gophers coach in 1999-2000, replacing Doug Woog. He acheived his greatest success in 2002 and '03 when the Gophers won back-to-back NCAA titles. The past two seasons, though, Minnesota has not even qualified for the NCAA and some Gophers fans have grumbled.
Asked if he could go into next season without an extension, Lucia said, "You look around, a lot of places -- all the [Minnesota] state schools, the way they run their contracts -- they can't get a new one until the contract is over. So it's the same type of deal."
Does that mean you will not be discussing an extension with Joel Maturi during this season? "Right now I am worried about UMass," Lucia said.