2001-02 Gophers hockey team: When they were kings

  • Article by: BRIAN STENSAAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2011 - 9:11 AM

Nine years ago, the Gophers won the NCAA title in St. Paul. Memories are still fresh for a close-knit team.

Nine years ago today, Nick Angell purposely remained the last player on the ice following the Gophers' final morning skate. The senior defenseman took it all in.

"I was looking around thinking, 'Well, you're either going to be a stud muffin or a loser here,'" Angell said. "If we won, we were going to celebrate like no other. If we lost, I was going to want to get off the ice as quick as possible."

Thanks to clutch goals by sophomores Matt Koalska and Grant Potulny, Angell's celebration scenario became a reality in a 4-3 overtime victory over Maine for the NCAA hockey championship.

That night, 26 kids from Minnesota -- and one North Dakotan -- became instant heroes to the pro-Gophers crowd of more than 19,000 at Xcel Energy Center.

Three consecutive years without an NCAA tournament appearance makes that moment a reminder of how good fans had it for the first of back-to-back national titles.

"Everybody tells me where they were at that moment," Angell said. "Like Woodstock, where 20,000 people were there, but now a million claim they were."

The Frozen Four returns to St. Paul for the first time this week, and memories of the 2002 team still are etched there, even though the members are spread all over the globe.

Playing only miles from campus, the Gophers were tops in college hockey for the first time in 23 years.

"We used every chance we could to go have a good time," forward Troy Riddle said.

The on-ice pig-pile celebration after Potulny's overtime game-winner bled into the team locker room -- where John Pohl proudly screamed "WE'RE ON 'SPORTSCENTER'!" -- then onto the team bus and eventually into a near-riot in Dinkytown.

Players largely stayed away from the car-turning, Dumpster-burning fracas. Most were safely inside their favorite campus bar, the Library.

The players remember the madness.

"The more it went on, the more it showed us the impact it made on the university and the city," defenseman Paul Martin said. "So many people cared about the win. That's when it hit home."

The party continued at Mariucci Arena the next day, where the bleary-eyed national champions addressed scores of fans during a belated welcome home tribute.

Parties, galas, media functions and plenty of unofficial appearances with the nicked-up wooden trophy followed.

"Yeah, we felt like kings for a bit there," forward Barry Tallackson wrote in an e-mail.

Tallackson and 19 others went on to win a second title a year later in Buffalo, N.Y., a 5-1 romp over New Hampshire. But they overwhelmingly say earning that first championship meant just a little bit more.

"There was so much more emotionally tied into that game," Martin said. "Not that the second one was easier, but there weren't any last-second heroics."

A near-miss

Potulny scored two goals in a semifinal victory over Michigan and ended up the Frozen Four's most outstanding player. His power-play goal in overtime -- Koalska tied the score with 52.4 seconds left in regulation -- set off that wild celebration and produced a heaping batch of tears and man-hugs.

But Potulny, a North Dakotan, almost didn't get the chance to be a hero. No non-Minnesotan had slipped on a Gophers sweater since 1987 as former coach Doug Woog brought in only state players. So when Potulny began the recruiting process, he was convinced he would join pal Brooks Bollinger, Wisconsin's North Dakota-born quarterback, in Madison. He scheduled one last visit out east anyway ... and then Don Lucia called.

"I knew even before my visit that if they offered, I was coming," Potulny said.

A decade later, Potulny is one of Lucia's assistant coaches. And Potulny's Mariucci Arena office is a personal shrine to his college days. There are signed pictures of former teammates and a couple from President George W. Bush. A puck commemorating Potulny's famous goal hangs on the wall, as does a Terrance Fogarty print -- that moment with 3 minutes, 2 seconds remaining in overtime, frozen in time.

But the memento Potulny first mentions isn't any of that. Rather it's a photo that sits in a simple brown frame on the corner of his desk. In it, six sophomores (Potulny, Koalska, Joey and Paul Martin, Riddle and Jon Waibel) from that first championship are hamming it up on the bank of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C.

"Those guys are my best friends to this day," Potulny said. "You think about the [championship] game and the success. But it's more that we were part of a close group.

"We were good. But Michigan was good, too. And UNH [New Hampshire] was good. There were a lot of really good teams. But we were so close as a team. I honestly think St. Cloud [State] was probably more talented than us that year. We couldn't beat Denver all year. But we rose above all the hurdles together."

Together as a team

The guy who scored exactly 200 points in his Gophers career and led the nation in scoring as a senior didn't just dazzle on the ice. Pohl has an uncanny ability to dredge up the most minute details of random conversations or moments in time.

"I don't know how he remembers all of that," the team's star defenseman, Jordan Leopold, said playfully. "He has a formula for it, and he's explained it. But I don't get it. My brain doesn't work that way."

Regardless, it doesn't take much coaxing to get Pohl, Leopold and their ex-teammates to get on a roll about one of the best weekends of their lives. Ask any of them about what sticks out from that championship season, and team togetherness is a common thread.

Rather than forming cliques, the 2001-02 Gophers were one entity. To ensure this, freshmen roomed with seniors on the road.

"No one was left out," said Brett MacKinnon, a freshman who was scratched for the Frozen Four and played in fewer than half of the Gophers' games that season. "I definitely wasn't a playing leader, but guys were respected evenly whether you were a Hobey Baker finalist, scored 90 points and got your mural on the wall [as an All-America] or not. It's not cliché when we say it was one big family."

And sometimes an ill-prepared one. Leopold, who won the Hobey Baker Award the day before the title game and has played in the NHL since, wasn't ready for the presentation. Roommate Judd Stevens and Pat O'Leary helped him sketch out a rough draft of an acceptance speech. Stevens also lent Leopold a black belt.

"I know; how do you not have a black belt?" Leopold said. "And it didn't match the blazer, and the blazer didn't match the pants I had. But I was a college kid. This is me."

Little, if any animosity, ever developed that season.

Even though Potulny beat out O'Leary, a senior, for a spot on the power play, instincts took over moments after the championship-winning goal.

While his teammates were posing for the first set of celebratory photos, O'Leary skated to the other end of the ice and retrieved the game puck. He presented it to Potulny in the locker room.

"I didn't keep it because -- I didn't think of it, first of all -- but in my mind I thought it should go to Grant," O'Leary said. "It made sense. I knew it would mean a lot to him."

So does keeping in touch.

Leopold has become a bit of a legend for the summer gatherings that reunite his college teammates. As the evenings draw on, so do the stories. Their St. Paul weekend of glory almost always becomes a talking point.

Some facts have been changed or embellished in the nine years since, but the root ideas are about the same.

Pohl does his best to make sure of that, though he's not the only one who has a good memory.

"I said whoever scores the [overtime] goal I'll buy beers for the rest of their life," Pohl recalled. "I owe Grant, and he still holds me to it every once in a while.

"You come back here and everyone remembers. That's what's special. You can leave, but you'll always be a Gopher."

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