Grant Potulny never had felt so empty on a Sunday morning. During his first two seasons as a Gophers assistant coach, he awoke with a heavy heart on the day the NCAA announced the field for its men's hockey tournament, knowing his team would not be part of it.
That was a strange experience for a guy who never missed the tournament as a player. The Gophers won back-to-back NCAA championships in 2002 and 2003, with Potulny's overtime goal sealing the 2002 title at Xcel Energy Center. Saturday, the Gophers return to the NCAA stage in that same arena, with Potulny eager to see how the big dance looks from behind the bench.
He rejoined the program as an assistant coach in 2009, only five years removed from his college playing days. After ending a 23-year NCAA title drought with that memorable goal, Potulny will help end another as the Gophers play their first NCAA tournament game since 2008 -- and being back at Xcel for their opener against Boston University is a happy bonus.
"This year, waking up on Sunday knowing we were still playing, it was such a great feeling," Potulny said. "And not only for me. I was on a plane [on a recruiting trip earlier this week], and people were saying, 'Go get 'em. Good luck. We can't wait.'
"I always thought there was nothing better than winning a game at Mariucci Arena, except for winning one at Xcel. That stage is bigger and brighter, with more people. It's a special moment when you share those victories with not only the city, but the whole state."
Or with the entire Gopher nation. When Potulny scored the goal that beat Maine 4-3 in the 2002 title game, he became an instant legend. That came less than two years after the North Dakota native joined the program amid some controversy as the first non-Minnesotan on a Gophers men's hockey roster since 1987.
During a career that ran from 2000 to 2004, Potulny developed a love for the U as deep and enduring as any home-grown Gopher. That's what lured him back after five seasons of pro hockey, and it's made him an enthusiastic salesman for the program. Potulny, 32, does most of the recruiting travel; when he is home, he works with the Gophers' forwards and helps break down video of opponents.
Potulny started as a volunteer assistant in May 2009 and earned full-time status two months later. Coach Don Lucia said he wanted to hire an alumnus, preferably one young enough to relate to players. As the Gophers' first three-year captain since 1947, Potulny had shown he was a loyal, passionate leader, with a fine hockey mind and an endless capacity to work and learn.
"Grant was a good player, but not an elite player," Lucia said. "He had to work for everything he was able to get. More often than not, those are the guys who make good coaches."
Potulny also had done what every college player hopes to do: win an NCAA championship. Some of the current Gophers remember seeing him do it, including sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt.
A St. Cloud native, Schmidt wasn't a Gophers fan in 2002. But he watched the title game with hundreds of people at the Eden Prairie Community Center, and he knew what Potulny could teach his team.
"He's been where we want to get to, and he takes extra pride in letting us know what it takes to get to the next level," Schmidt said. "It's good to have a guy with his experience, who can instill what it takes to be the championship-caliber team we want to be."
As fun as it was to play, Potulny said it is even more gratifying to be a coach and help others discover success. He views Saturday's return to the NCAA tournament as another important step for the Gophers, just as that 2002 title was.
Sometimes, Potulny said, the players ask him about that season. While he will happily share stories, he also reminds them of the great teams that came before them, the ones that inspired him. When they take the ice Saturday, he wants them to know the moment does not belong solely to them, but to all Gophers -- past, present and future.
"This program has such a storied history," Potulny said. "I think it's their responsibility to know what happened before they got here, so they know what they're expected to do.
"A lot of people worked very hard to build this program. I'm fortunate to be part of it, and our guys are, too. They have to accept the responsibility of giving nothing but the best effort, of trying to be great. That's how you achieve something that stays with you forever."
Rachel Blount • email@example.com