Ryan Guentzel knows how it feels to celebrate an NCAA hockey championship at Xcel Energy Center. He's done it before, running onto the ice in 2002 to join the pandemonium set off by the Gophers' first title in 23 years.

The son of former Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel, Ryan was a teenager then, a young player who envisioned helping the U win another national championship in the future. Becoming a Gopher wasn't in the cards. Winning the title could be, as Guentzel returns to Xcel this week to play in the Frozen Four for Notre Dame.

People often assume things come easily for a coach's kid. Guentzel, who was not on anyone's recruiting radar during his years at Hill-Murray, labored for two years in junior hockey to earn his chance to play for a Division I school. He never did become a star. Instead, he became a team captain who will end his college career with a second appearance in the Frozen Four -- this one in a place that's already close to his heart.

"Ever since I found out the Frozen Four was going to be in St. Paul my senior year, I wanted to have this opportunity,'' said Guentzel, 24. "I was actually sitting in my bed last [Wednesday] night thinking about when the Gophers won the national championship at Xcel. I have so many great memories of that game, being on the ice with guys like Johnny Pohl and Grant Potulny, celebrating with them and my family.

"In the back of my mind, I always wanted to attend the University of Minnesota. Me and my dad talked about how it would probably be best if I went my own route, and I'm thrilled I was able to do that. To have the opportunity to come back here and play in this Frozen Four, it's a dream come true.''

Mike Guentzel will be watching Ryan from the stands during Thursday's semifinal against Minnesota Duluth, a treat that has been all too rare the past four years. Now an assistant to Dean Blais at Nebraska-Omaha, Mike usually settles for seeing his sons -- including Gabe, a junior defenseman and alternate captain at Colorado College, and Jake, a sophomore forward at Hill-Murray -- via TV or the Internet.

All three Guentzels in the college ranks made it to the NCAA tournament this year. Gabe's Tigers lost in a regional final to Michigan, and Mike's Mavericks fell to the Wolverines in the first round. That will enable Mike to play just one role this week: a beaming hockey dad happy to see his sons carve their own distinct paths.

"It's been pretty special to have two boys play at the Division I level,'' said Mike, who left the U in 2008 and joined the Nebraska-Omaha staff last summer. "They've played for two good coaches at schools that fit them perfectly, and nothing was given to them. They had to be patient and grind away and earn it. That's to their credit, and I couldn't be prouder.''

Ryan Guentzel will complete his career with his best season at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish endured a massive roster turnover last summer, as seven players graduated, three turned pro and three others left the team.

That opened up more opportunity for Guentzel, who entered this season with four goals and 11 assists in 100 career games. While helping 12 freshmen figure out the college game, he has spent time on the first two lines, the power play and the penalty kill. In 43 games this season, he has six goals and 31 assists.

Irish coach Jeff Jackson said Guentzel's leadership skills have been instrumental in molding that young group into a championship contender. He already had proven he knew how to build something through effort and dedication. After graduating from Hill-Murray in 2005, Guentzel needed to gain weight, strength and experience against high-level talent to make a Division I roster, so he played one season for Southern Minnesota of the North American Hockey League and another for Sioux Falls of the USHL.

He didn't attract much college interest until his year with Sioux Falls, when he scheduled an official visit to Notre Dame. Shortly after arriving on campus, Guentzel knew it was where he belonged.

He already has played in one Frozen Four, which culminated with Notre Dame's loss to Boston College in the 2008 championship game. The Irish were underdogs then, as they are this week. Guentzel is plenty familiar with that role -- and with the satisfaction that comes from soaring beyond it.

"Those years in juniors, I had to be patient and just let things happen,'' Guentzel said. "I wouldn't change a thing. To be able to attend Notre Dame, to be part of a team that's had pretty good success, I've enjoyed every last second.''

Rachel Blount rblount@startribune.com