Like most Minnesotans during this COVID-19 pandemic, Bob Motzko went through an adjustment period over the past two weeks.
“You have it in your head that it’s two weeks, three weeks,’’ the Gophers men’s hockey coach said Thursday. “Then all of a sudden, ‘OK, all of April, we’re going to be quiet again.’ It’s been OK, but now we’re going to get put to the test.’’
Indeed, with Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order through April 10 – and other measures to combat the coronavirus lasting even longer – people will face more challenges. That includes Motzko and how he manages his team.
The abrupt ending to the college hockey season came March 12, two days before the Gophers were to play Penn State in a Big Ten tournament semifinal in State College, Pa. Instead of keeping alive their slim hopes to make the NCAA tournament, the Gophers were shut down after a promising second half of Motzko’s second season in charge. The coach felt for his three seniors but saw a spark from his team.
“They’re very encouraged,’’ he said. “The way it all ended was of course a shock, but because it happened everywhere, it was bigger than us. Everybody came to a halt, and that put the seriousness to it.’’
As is his practice when a season ends, Motzko gave his team the past two weeks off to decompress, heal and recharge. Now, with individual meetings with his players on tap – via FaceTime instead of face to face – Motzko faces new challenges in managing his squad in uncertain times.
“From our standpoint, it’s been trying to get organized on how we’re going to communicate with our guys, staying in contact as a staff, divvying up the players so they can hear our voices,’’ he said. “For the most part, we’ve been very encouraged with our conversations with our players. … They’re looking to us for answers, but like everybody, we don’t have an answer for them except this will pass. We’re going to get through this.’’
One answer Motzko received was from sophomore forward Sampo Ranta, the team’s second-leading goal-scorer. Before he returned last week to his native Finland, Ranta, a third-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2018, told Motzko he planned to return for his junior season. Though it’s only March and things can change through the summer, Motzko doesn’t expect any early departures.
“There is an underline inside our group about our future that is driving our spirit,’’ he said. “Part of it is a lot of guys coming back. They all need to – there’s no reason for any of them to leave right now – but they’re also excited.’’
Though roster decisions will come later, Motzko indicated he expected to add two freshmen defensemen to the team, plus two or three forwards.
A crucial part of the offseason for Motzko and his Gophers will come in the weight room. With nine freshmen playing key roles in 2019-20, the Gophers were the youngest team in Division I hockey. He noted the contrast of 2018-19 seniors Tyler Sheehy and Brent Gates Jr. to last season’s youngsters. “You saw Sheehy and Gates, and they were big, strong men,’’ Motzko said. “We were boys. That’s the exciting challenge.’’
That challenge falls to Cal Dietz, the team’s highly regarded strength and conditioning coach. With players not yet allowed to use team facilities, Dietz must develop conditioning programs that are flexible with the amount of equipment players might or might not have at their disposal. “Our conditioning in this offseason will be the biggest factor in our success,’’ Motzko emphasized. “We are going to have to be creative.’’
Creativity will serve coaches well in these uncertain times. So will a sense of perspective, and Motzko saw a bright spot to that while adhering to social distancing: He could spend more time at home with his family – wife Shelley, daughter Ella, and sons Mack and Beau.
“Like everyone, we’re going through spring cleaning. A few nights ago, we all ended up in the room watching DVDs of our kids when they were young,’’ Motzko said. “It’s something we never would have done. We probably spent two hours watching these darn old hockey videos, old DVDs of our kids in baseball. … It was a real neat night for us to reminisce.’’
Looking forward, however, is what Motzko plans to do with his team. And he likes what he sees.
“There’s a little burn right now, a little fire for the future, and these guys have it as a group,’’ he said. “It is exactly where we want to be.’’