Hansen finally finds hope with U men's hockey

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2012 - 7:00 AM

Jake Hansen picked the Gophers for their success. But recent years have been lean. Now, the WCHA title is within reach.

Jake Hansen (21) did battle with Bemidji State’s Sam Windle on Saturday. The Gophers, who took two from the Beavers, are in first place of the WCHA, leading Minnesota Duluth by two points.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Jake Hansen, one of the assistant captains on the U men's hockey team, is not sure what the MacNaughton Cup looks like.

But he hopes to find out soon.

The nearly 3-foot tall, 40-pound trophy, crafted out of silver, is presented to the WCHA regular-season champion every year. In coach Don Lucia's 13 seasons at Minnesota, the Gophers have won the cup twice, in 2006 and '07. Hansen and the other six seniors arrived at the U for the 2008-09 season.

"One of the main reasons I came here," Hansen said, "is the success they have had in the past and knowing you had a great chance to win a national championship -- a great chance to win the MacNaughton Cup, the Final Five. Obviously, those have been struggles for us."

Hansen's class has none of those trophies. They have finished fifth twice and seventh once in league play and don't even have a banner for an NCAA appearance. But with four conference games left, the first-place Gophers lead Minnesota Duluth by two points and Denver by four. Lucia said Wednesday that he would talk about the chase for the cup next week, provided his team returns with points from its series at Nebraska-Omaha this weekend.

It's a chase that Hansen almost didn't stick around to see. The physical 6-1, 191-pound right winger considered leaving the program as a sophomore. The Gophers were struggling. So was he.

He had 28 goals and 71 points as a junior at White Bear Lake High School and had 58 points in his only full season with Sioux Falls of the USHL. He played less his first two seasons with the Gophers and, when he did, it was usually on the lower lines. He had two goals and seven points as a freshman, seven goals and 12 points as a sophomore.

"He came up with Jordan Schroeder and those guys and, for the first time, he had to take a back seat to people," Hansen's dad, Jim, said.

Even so, Jim and Lora Hansen urged Jake to stay at the U.

"This was the first time in his life he had a couple of obstacles in his path," his father said. "He saw teammates leave but he has matured a lot."

Hansen, a third-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007, is thankful he stayed. The team is having success this season. He is six credits shy of his business and marketing degree, and has formed many close friendships. He is also having his best season with 11 goals and 29 points -- nine more points than last year.

Lucia said Hansen's career turned around following a one-game suspension last season. He sat out a midseason exhibition game against the under-18 national team.

"When that happened, it hits you," Hansen said. "It makes you think what you want to do with your career. I love the game of hockey. From then on, I went on a little tear, whether it was defensively, offensively, doing everything I could do to play as well as I can. It [the suspension] knocked some sense into me."

A visit from Blue Jackets' GM Scott Howson also helped. He came to watch Hansen and other Columbus prospects play in late November. The Gophers beat Michigan 3-1 at Mariucci. Afterward, he told Hansen he stood out the most -- quite a boost to his ego.

This season, Hansen is playing on the Gophers' second line. He is fourth on the team in points and shots (94), and fifth with a plus-17 rating. He also is praised by teammates for being a leader.

"[Jake] has good vision, a good shot," said Erik Haula, the center on Hansen's line, "and the thing I like about him the most is how competitive he is, how badly he wants to win every game. He has been good for this team."

Like Lucia, Hansen is cautious about looking too far ahead. Regarding the home stretch, all he will say is this: "It is a pretty good feeling to know you have a chance to win the MacNaughton Cup. People say how hard it is to do."

He can vouch for those people.

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