Herb Brooks set a standard with three national championships in the 1970s. Since then, patience has not been a strong point for the ardent supporters of Gophers hockey.
Brad Buetow was the interim coach in 1979-80 when Herbie went off to coach the U.S. Olympic team. When Brooks chose not to return, Buetow held the position for five more seasons.
Buetow had a winning percentage of .689. There was no national title game among his 171 victories, and Buetow was fired by athletic director Paul Giel.
Doug Woog came in for the 1985-86 season. He went to 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments and six Final Fours (or Frozen Fours, as the finals are now called). There was no title for Woog. And when two losing seasons surfaced, lowering Woog’s winning percentage to .663, he was “reassigned’’ and replaced by Don Lucia, the coach at Colorado College.
Lucia’s first team missed the NCAA tournament, and then the glory came quickly: The Gophers lost in a regional in 2001, followed by national titles in 2002 and 2003. Minnesota Duluth ended the reign in a regional final in 2004 and the Gophers lost to North Dakota in the NCAA semifinals in 2005.
No problem. He still was The Don to Gophers fans … the coach who had brought championship hardware back to Minnesota after what had been a 23-year drought.
A local media member didn’t want to have any fun with Lucia by suggesting every season was either a championship or a bust. The Don’s admirers didn’t like the suggestion that the Gophers’ budget, television exposure and market size gave them the advantages to be called “the Yankees of college hockey.’’
And then a strange thing happened: The Gophers lost three consecutive in regional tournaments, from 2006 through 2008, to Holy Cross, North Dakota and Boston College. That was followed by three years in a row, from 2009 through 2011, when the Gophers missed the NCAA tournament. They didn’t even reach the WCHA’s Final Five in 2010 and 2011.
Those three seasons of disaster were one more than did in Woog. Lucia can be grateful that his fellow Iron Ranger, Joel Maturi, still was making the decisions as athletic director, or The Don could have been down the road.
Maturi can take heat for finding Tim Brewster as a football coach and other coaching matters.
What must be said in Maturi’s favor is that he didn’t give in to the howls of discontent from important hockey people. Rather than get rid of Lucia in the summer of 2011, Maturi started talking contract extension.
The deal was announced in October 2011. Lucia was signed through the 2014-15 season.
The new contract foreshadowed a revival with Lucia’s program. The Gophers went to the Frozen Four and lost to eventual champion Boston College in the 2012 semifinals. They were upset in the first round last year by upstart Yale, which went on to win the championship.
And now the Gophers are back in the Frozen Four, with a team that has spent most of the season rated No. 1 in the country.
The Gophers played without pressure in the West Regional over the weekend — blowing out Robert Morris 7-3 on Saturday, and handling NCHC champion St. Cloud State with ease, 4-0, on Sunday night.
One task for the Gophers will be to keep this impressive edge until April 10. That’s when they will meet North Dakota in the Frozen Four semifinals in Philadelphia.
The contrast between North Dakota’s trudge to victory in overtime against Ferris State on Saturday, and the Gophers’ blowout of St. Cloud State on Sunday, makes Lucia’s lads substantial favorites in the match against their formerly fierce WCHA rival.
The Gophers opened the season with a 6-0 victory over Mercyhurst on Oct. 11 and have had only a couple of low moments in the ensuing six months. They have played 39 games and lost six. Uff da.
What’s amazing is that Lucia said adieu to underclassmen Nick Bjugstad, Eric Haula and Zach Budish, without regret, after last season, and has produced a better team that includes eight freshmen.
Lucia won a title in his third season as Gophers coach. He appears ready to do the same in the third season of his comeback as Gophers coach.
All hail The Don. Again.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org