LOVELAND, COLO. – When Bob Motzko was introduced as Gophers men's hockey coach on March 29, 2018, he didn't shy away from the expectations that go hand-in-hand with the job.
"Every coach here going back to Glen Sonmor has played for a national championship," he said from a podium at TCF Bank Stadium. "This is one of the greatest programs in college hockey, and it's part of the fabric of our state."
Three years later, Motzko will try to weave his own strand into that Minnesota hockey fabric, as he takes his Gophers to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Top-seeded Minnesota will meet No. 4-seeded Nebraska Omaha at 9 p.m. Saturday in the semifinal of the West Regional at the Budweiser Events Center. A victory would put the Gophers into Sunday's regional final against the winner of game between Minnesota State Mankato and Quinnipiac. It also would give the program something it hasn't had since 2014 — an NCAA tournament win.
In his third year as Gophers head coach after 13 seasons at St. Cloud State, Motzko has a team that's fashioned a 23-6 record, finished second in the Big Ten regular season by scant percentage points to Wisconsin and won the conference tournament. He believes his team has the ingredients to be a factor in the national tournament, a record 38th NCAA appearance in the program's 100th season. Minnesota is back in the tournament for the first time since 2017.
"It's expected here," Motzko said. "We knew we'd get back there. It's really all that matters. We're there now, we earned our way in, and we are excited."
Against Nebraska Omaha (14-10-1), the Gophers will face a team that been steeled by a steady diet of NCHC opponents, including six contests against league champion and top-ranked North Dakota. The Mavericks beat the Fighting Hawks twice.
Omaha doesn't look like a typical No. 4 seed, and the college hockey world just saw No. 4 seed Bemidji State eliminate No. 1 seed Wisconsin 6-3 in the East Regional on Friday.
"Anyone can win in this tournament," Gophers captain Sammy Walker said. "Everyone in this tournament is tough."
Ups and downs in the tourney
While at St. Cloud State, Motzko took the Huskies to the 2013 Frozen Four, the only appearance in school history. He also had them in three other NCAA regional finals and won three WCHA regular-season crowns.
He also saw his top-seeded Huskies team fall to No. 4 seed Ferris State 5-4 in overtime in the 2016 NCAA West Regional in St. Paul. His last game with St. Cloud State before leaving to take the Gophers job was a 4-1 West Regional loss to Air Force in Sioux Falls when the Huskies were the No. 1 seed.
"I've been a No. 1 seed and got beaten by a No. 16, and I've been a No. 16 and beat a No. 1," Motzko said. "All that matters is how you're playing." He added that Bemidji State's upset over Wisconsin on Friday, "is a great lesson for our guys."
Vision taking shape
The Gophers have played well leading up to the NCAA tournament, coming back from deficits against both Michigan State and Michigan in the Big Ten tournament before taking down the Badgers for the championship.
When he was hired by Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle in 2018, Motzko in his introductory news conference described the type of team he expected to assemble.
"We're going to be fast, we're going to be skilled, and we're going to add a whole lot of toughness to the way we play this sport," Motzko said then. "I told the team yesterday, the first thing that we have to do is we have to be humble, and we've got to find a way to have a little humility in the way we act. We're going to roll up our sleeves and go to work."
While the NCAA tournament will be the judge of how a team fulfills its promise, Motzko is coaching a fast, skilled team that for the most part has been tougher than some Gophers teams in years past. There have been hiccups along the way, such as the combined 12-2 shellacking the Gophers took from the Badgers over two games in early February at 3M Arena at Mariucci, but the team has escaped funks quickly. Motzko regularly raves about how much he and his coaching staff like this team and the way it comports itself, especially during a season filled with challenges brought on by COVID-19.
"I like our makeup," Motzko said. "We've got enough grit and determination."
That, of course, will be determined starting Saturday night in an AHL arena north of Denver. The Gophers under Motzko are embracing the expectations that history and the fan base puts on their shoulders. Their time, Motzko believes, is now.
"Let's just get ready this week and get after it," he said.