Bob Motzko seemed surprised that no one had made the connection. Last week, the St. Cloud State coach noted that these Huskies were not the first to make it to the final four in an NCAA hockey tournament. They had done so in Division III in 1987, finishing third in the nation to end the season in which Herb Brooks coached them.
Motzko began his coaching career as an assistant to Brooks that season. He is now in his eighth season as head coach and led St. Cloud State to its first Division I Frozen Four with emphatic victories over Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) in the Midwest Regional. Thursday, the Huskies play Quinnipiac in the national semifinal at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Wednesday, they kicked off the experience with a press conference; last week, Motzko reminisced about that 1986-87 season.
Brooks took the job to help the Huskies make the transition to Division I, furthering the vision of legendary Gophers coach John Mariucci, whose mission was to expand Division I college opportunities for Minnesota-born players. The Huskies went 25-10-1 that season, and Brooks also aided them by lobbying for state funds to build the National Hockey Center. In the Division III tournament, they lost 5-2 to Oswego State in the semifinals and defeated Bemidji State 6-4 in the third-place game.
"I'll never forget when we played the semifinal game,'' said Motzko, who played for the Huskies for two seasons before joining Brooks's staff. "I was standing right next to Herb in the press box, and he was madder than a hornet. He turned to me and said, 'I've never lost a semifinal game before in my life.' He was so mad. I'm just a young guy, and I'm thinking, 'He won three titles (at the U), he won the gold medal (at the 1980 Olympics). He isn't used to that.'
"That was just as meaningful to those guys in 1987 as it is to these guys, though this one probably means more to the whole community. One of the players from that team told me, 'You can finish what we started.' I do know Herb would be very proud of this.''
That player, by the way, was Mike Brodzinski, who has additional reason to root. His son Jonny, a freshman, leads the Huskies with 22 goals. Mike Brodzinski was the leading scorer in D-III in 1985-86 and 1986-87, and with 76 goals and 70 assists, he is the leading career scorer for St. Cloud State in its pre-Division I era. "He's really pumped,'' Jonny said last week. "He's got all his tickets. He's ready to go.''
More from Motzko on the current edition of the Huskies:
--He predicted big things early on for this group. "From day one, I said, 'There's something here,''' he said. "They have a great compete level, and they're a lot of fun to be around. I didn't know how good we were going to be; I knew we had (Drew) LeBlanc, (Ben) Hanowski and (Nick) Jensen back, and we had faith in our goalie (Ryan Faragher). But we needed some young kids to step into key roles, and they did.''
--On the importance of LeBlanc, a Hobey Baker Award finalist, to the team's success: "People say he doesn't have a lot of goals (LeBlanc has 13 this season). He has a pile of goals. They're all on other players' sticks. He makes players around him better, and that's his greatest gift as a hockey player. So many of our guys have tap-in goals they would never have had (without his setups). He puts the puck right on their tape.
"Those freshmen who have been his linemates (Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila), one has 22 goals, and one has 15. People say, 'Oh, geez, what tremendous freshman years they're having. They're good players.' Drew LeBlanc is why.''
Wednesday in Pittsburgh, at the team's pre-tournament news conference, LeBlanc spoke about how it felt to be there. The Huskies took a charter flight from St. Cloud and have a full slate of activities on tap in Pittsburgh, including fan gatherings, a pep rally with their band, mascot and cheerleaders, and a "red-carpet arrival'' ceremony before Thursday's semifinal.
"Just driving up and seeing that big Frozen Four sign on the window with our name up there, it's like, 'Oh, this really happened,''' LeBlanc said. "It's been a whirlwind of practice and interviews and this and that. We haven't had a chance to sit down and enjoy the moment yet. We can't wait to get to (game time).''
Gophers coach Don Lucia said Saturday that four recruits--Taylor Cammarata of Plymouth, Justin Kloos of Lakeville, Hudson Fasching of Apple Valley and Gabe Guertler, who is from Florida--will be joining the Gophers next season. There could be more, depending upon who leaves.
This week, Lucia will begin his annual postseason meetings with players. He expects to learn more about whether Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Nate Schmidt--or anyone else--plans to sign a pro contract. "I'm sure some of them have an idea right now whether they're staying or going,'' Lucia said. "We'll sit down this week and figure out where we're at.''
Cammarata and Kloos, teammates with Waterloo of the USHL, are the top two scorers in the league. Cammarata has 82 points, Kloos has 77 and Guertler, who plays for Fargo, has 51. They're all smaller guys, in the 5-7 to 5-9 range. Fasching, who plays for USA Hockey's under-18 team in Ann Arbor, Mich., is 6-3 and a potential first-round NHL draft pick. There will be opportunity for all of them, Lucia said, to claim a substantial role as soon as they begin their Gophers careers.
"We're in pretty good position,'' Lucia said. "We have players to bring in. Some of them we'd like to see play two years in juniors, and some already have, which is good. Cammerata and Guertler have had two years in juniors. Kloos is having a good year.
"We're going to need some of that (scoring). We need a little more depth in our lineup as far as being able to create offense. We didn't have as much this year as we did the year before. The best teams we've had, from an offensive standpoint, are when we're bringing scoring from three lines.''
Regarding players who might improve significantly or assume leadership roles next season, Lucia had this to say: "We'll have a better idea in the next few weeks who our captains will be, after we have the end-of-the-year player meetings. Every returning guy, you hope they can improve their game and make some strides. I think some of them did (this year). Tom Serratore, Seth Ambroz, Christian Isackson, Travis Boyd, they all had more points.
"Based on what some of the guys do, especially Nick (Bjugstad) and Erik (Haula), that will determine whether we have the option to move (Kyle) Rau back to center, or Nate Condon. What we do with guys will depend upon who returns.''
Lucia also reiterated what a good group of Gophers he had this year. "It was so painful in the locker room,'' he said of the mood after Friday's loss to Yale in the NCAA tournament. "It was a fun group to be around. They excel in class. There are no off-ice issues. They put so much into it. The fans get disappointed, but they're not nearly as disappointed as the players. They're devastated when the season ends.
"My heart was broken for Ben Marshall (who lost the puck in overtime, leading to Yale's winning goal). Nobody felt worse than he did. That's the sad part. You feel for the kids.''
Another day, another come-from-behind victory over a WCHA team. A day after upending the Gophers 3-2 in overtime, Yale proved it is no fluke by spotting North Dakota a 1-0 lead before roaring away to a 4-1 win in the West Region final Saturday in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Bulldogs head to their first Frozen Four, which is in Pittsburgh--the hometown of hero Jesse Root, who scored the winning goals in both games.
Root was the West Region MVP. Others on the all-region team were North Dakota's Danny Kristo (F), Corban Knight (F) and Andrew MacWilliam (D), plus Yale's Gus Young (D) and Niagara's Carsen Chubak (G). Yale did play in the national semifinals in 1952--when the tournament was in its infancy, with two teams picked from the East and two from the West--and lost to Colorado College before beating St. Lawrence in the consolation game. It lost in the regional finals in 2010 and 2011.
Just as it did against the Gophers, Yale used a tenacious forecheck, an aggressive penalty kill and a disciplined game plan against North Dakota. It spent big chunks of time in the NoDak zone, outshooting North Dakota 25-16 in the first two periods. "They did a good job of pressuring all over the ice,'' North Dakota defenseman Dillon Simpson said. "It seemed like every time you looked up, there was a Yale jersey in your face.''
Seems hard to believe that this bunch was shut out in consecutive games coming into the tournament. Those losses--5-0 to No. 13 Union and 3-0 to top-ranked Quinnipiac--and a five-game losing streak in February stuck Yale firmly under the radar. The Gophers didn't play their best Friday, and North Dakota wasn't its sharpest Saturday. But this is a good team: hard-working, well-coached, opportunistic and relentless, with a fabulous forward in Kenny Agostino.
Attendance for Saturday's game was announced as 1,918, a paltry number. There was no atmosphere at all on either day; attendance Friday was said to be 2,289. There were 2,988 at the St. Cloud State-Notre Dame game in Toledo. The Northeast Regional, held 38 miles from the campus of host team New Hampshire, pulled in 8,357. A number of coaches took note of the low attendance, with some suggesting a return to campus sites for regional play would be a good idea. Neutral sites make sense in principle, but the chances of having a lively atmosphere befitting a national championship tournament are much better in campus rinks.
Minnesota State, Mankato went out Saturday, too, losing 4-0 to Miami (Ohio). That leaves St. Cloud State to carry the banner for the WCHA. The Huskies broke open a tight game with three second-period goals in a span of 5:25, with freshman Joey Benik of Andover getting two goals--including the winner--and an assist. The Huskies play Miami (Ohio) Sunday for the regional title, trying to make their first Frozen Four.
Senior captain Ben Hanowski of Little Falls staked the Huskies to a 1-0 lead with the only goal of the first period. Coach Bob Motzko said he urged his team to relax, a message he will repeat Sunday. "Getting the first goal was huge,'' he said. "When we got that goal, we settled in and started to hunker down and play a more complete game. It had been an up-and-down game, with both teams getting good chances. In the second period, our guys were able to put pressure on them.
"This is a great group of guys, with tremendous leadership. We're telling them to not be nervous, to expect the unexpected and to not alter our game plan if something crazy happens. Our league prepared us for this, with a lot of big games.''
Hanowski said he and his teammates were thrilled to give their program an attention-grabbing victory on a big stage. "This program has a lot of history,'' he said. "A lot of people put in the work and sacrifice to get St. Cloud State to Division I and build it up in the WCHA. This is huge for our program. (Sunday's game) is the biggest game in the program's history.''
Don Lucia and his players weren't the only ones who didn't see Yale's Jesse Root score the winning goal nine seconds into overtime of Friday's NCAA West Regional. No one in the press box did, either. Everyone was just getting settled for the overtime, and suddenly, it was over.
It was a shocking end. The Gophers had grabbed hold of the game in the third period, outshooting Yale 12-6. They attempted 32 shots in the third period alone, on their way to 81 for the game. It felt like the Gophers had just hit their stride. But one bad play ruined things for them.
After Nick Bjugstad won a faceoff, Ben Marshall got the puck and carried it behind the Gophers' net. Yale coach Keith Allain said he could sense what was going to happen. "I thought to myself, 'Kenny is going to force a turnover here,''' he said of forward Kenny Agostino, who did just that. "He put such great pressure on (Marshall). He had him at an angle where I knew the guy was in trouble. He not only forced the turnover, but he was able to get the puck on a nice play to Root across the front of the net.''
Agostino got the puck and passed to Root, who had a wide-open net to shoot at. Bjugstad said he tried to lie down in front of the net to block Agostino's pass. "It was in the back of the net before I could even see anything,'' said Bjugstad, who appeared shellshocked 30 minutes after the game. "The season was over, just like that. It's just unbelievable. I can't even explain it.
"It's tough. We obviously dug ourselves a hole with two goals. We came back, and I felt we were going to win the game. It just didn't happen. We can't do anything about it now. It's a tough way to go out.''
Goalie Adam Wilcox said he didn't see much, either. "It all happened so fast,'' he said. "I turned my head when they were behind the net and lost it for a second. That's when he passed, right out to a guy in front. That was the end of it. Not much you can do there.''
The players, understandably, were heartbroken. Erik Haula, Nate Schmidt and Zach Budish were the ones chosen to speak at the postgame press conference; all had red, teary eyes, and Budish's voice broke as he was speaking. "There's not much you can do when there's a guy in the slot from 10 feet away,'' he said. "It's a tough loss. It stings. It just sucks to go out this way.''
Budish did say he plans to return to the Gophers for his senior season. He was a second-round draft pick by Nashville in the 2009 NHL draft. "I'm planning on coming back,'' he said. "I'll take this as a learning experience. We've got a great group of guys coming back. I can't wait to play again in six months.''
Haula and Schmidt said they haven't thought about whether they will return. Bjugstad--a first-round pick by Florida in 2010--is expected to go, but he wasn't ready to let go after the game. "This was one of the best years of my life,'' he said. "I don't even want to think about (leaving) right now.''
Lucia bristled when he was asked if the loss compared to the Gophers' first-round NCAA loss to Holy Cross in 2006, which remains a symbol of a classic upset in college hockey. Holy Cross won that game 4-3 in overtime.
"Everyone says 'Holy Cross,''' he said. "That's disrespectful to people who follow college hockey. Whether it's Bemidji State or RIT, they're good teams. When you get to this point of the season, you play teams that have won a lot of games. It's single-elimination. You have to play well to move on.
"I thought we played OK. Did we play our best game this year? Probably not. It wasn't because we weren't trying. We were trying to play well. I feel bad for our players.''
Lucia said it was hard to look at his players in the locker room and see how terrible they felt. Many of them still were in their gear a half-hour after the game.
Several players said they were not worried between the second and third periods, despite trailing Yale 2-0. They discussed their first-round WCHA playoff game against Bemidji State, when they fell behind 2-0.The Gophers scored twice in the third period to win 4-3, scoring the winning goal with 53 seconds left.
"This time of year, it's hard to play from behind,'' Lucia said. "It's a lot easier when you can dictate the play. The effort was there. We just missed too many. We do a great job on the (last) faceoff, then we win the draw and it ends up in our net.''
The Gophers did do a great job on faceoffs, winning 47 and losing 21. That is an area that Allain wants to clean up for Saturday's West Regional final against North Dakota. But it was about the only thing he didn't like.
"From our perspective, this was a tremendous team win,'' he said. "To a man, our guys played as well as they can play.
"Our guys checked pretty tenaciously. We kept the play in front of us. We hounded the puck and tried to take away their time and space. We were able to do it as a unit of five, rather than as individuals.''
Allain also liked his team's determination after the Gophers tied the score 2-2. Yet he didn't look at the game as a monumental accomplishment in itself.
"We understand at this level of hockey, the other team is going to score goals and apply pressure,'' he said. "That's part of it. You've got to get your nose bloodied a couple of times and see how you respond. We saw a pretty good response from our group.
"We came here to win the regional, not to beat Minnesota.Although we're thrilled right now that we beat Minnesota, we've got work to do (Saturday).''
Good evening from Grand Rapids, Mich., where all four NCAA West Regional teams--the Gophers, Yale, North Dakota and Niagara--practiced and spoke with the media Thursday in advance of Friday's opening games of the NCAA men's hockey tournament.
The Gophers appeared loose and happy this morning when they arrived at the arena. Coach Don Lucia said he liked the excitement and enthusiasm they showed, and he reiterated that they are in very good health for this time of year. The only player injured recently, forward Sam Warning, returned earlier than expected after sitting out the Gophers' WCHA first-round playoff series against Bemidji State. He played in the WCHA Final Five and has been participating fully in practice. "His conditioning wasn't at the level we wanted it to be,'' Lucia said. "It was good for him to go through a game and have another full week of practice. (His conditioning) is back up to where it was before he was injured.''
There are a handful of connections between the No. 2 Gophers and No. 15 Yale, their first-round opponent. Lucia worked with Yale coach Keith Allain to coach USA Hockey under-17 teams in Japan and Mexico City in the mid-1990s. Yale assistant coach Dan Muse will be on Lucia's staff for the 2014 World Junior Championships, serving as video coach while Lucia is head coach. Yale forward Nicholas Weberg played at Shattuck-St. Mary's. Yale's Mitch Witek and Anthony Day played junior hockey with the Gophers' A.J. Michaelson at Waterloo of the USHL, and Yale's Stu Wilson and Tommy Fallen played in the USHL with Warning at Cedar Rapids. Fallen is a Plymouth native who played with eight current Gophers and against 15 others.
In addition, Lucia said that Sean Ritchlin--a former Michigan player who will be providing analysis for the ESPNU TV broadcast--played on one of those U-17 teams that he and Allain coached. And Allain was head coach for the U.S. team at the 2011 world junior championships, where the Gophers' Nick Bjugstad was on the roster. More proof that college hockey is a small universe.
Allain said he has plenty to worry about with the Gophers. First and foremost, he is concerned with the first-line tandem of Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, though he also cited the Gophers' depth and the goaltending of freshman Adam Wilcox as factors. Of his own team, he said, 'We like to play fast. We're quick with our minds, our hands and our feet.''
Yale junior forward Kenny Agostino had a minor distraction Thursday when he found out his NHL rights had been traded as part of a deal that brought Calgary star Jarome Iginla to Pittsburgh. The Penguins got Iginla in exchange for the rights to Agostino and St. Cloud State's Ben Hanowski, as well as their first-round pick in the 2013 NHL draft. Agostino got the news when he woke up in Grand Rapids on Thursday morning and checked his phone. "It's cool to be part of something like that,'' he said. "But it's on the back burner right now.''
Other notes from the Gophers:
--Like his players, Lucia said he was delighted for the Gophers' women's hockey team, which finished a 41-0 season with a victory over Boston University to win its second consecutive NCAA championship Sunday. "It's great for them,'' he said. "And I think the best thing is the sellout and creating new fans. Just like we want little boys coming to Mariucci Arena and watching the men's team play, you want to bring girls to Ridder and watch the women's team play. That's how women's hockey will continue to grow.
"We saw support for the women's team grow as the year went on. They deserved it, they earned it, and I hope they inspire a lot of little girls to grow up and be a Gophers women's hockey player. In our department, everyone is supportive of each other. The better they do, the better it is for us.''
Bjugstad said it gave him "goose bumps'' to see the women hoist the trophy. "I stayed out there and watched them pass it around,'' he said. "It was definitely motivating. I loved going to that game to see how it felt to win a national championship.''
--Lucia said he wanted to see the Gophers "play free and play well'' in the regional. He said he has emphasized that no matter how important the games are this time of year, players must remember to stick with the style that brought them to this point.
"My message is, don't play any differently than you have all year,'' he said. "Don't think you have to play harder or better. Just do what got you here. Don't think you have to do everything yourself. Play as five-man units. Keep the structure of the game. Play confident. Make plays. And play to win. That's important this time of year; you can get tentative. We want them to play on their toes and play aggressively.''
--Erik Haula said national rankings don't matter, with one exception. The Gophers' high ranking landed them the top seed at the regional, which meant they got the best locker room at Van Andel Arena.
By the way, the Gophers and North Dakota--which plays Niagara in the other West Regional semifinal Friday--are clearly well-coached off the ice as well. Players from both teams expertly avoided answering questions about a possible rematch in the regional final.