The sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 70s still said summer, but the unofficial start of a Gophers men’s hockey season that could last into spring took place Tuesday at Ridder Arena, where coach Bob Motzko and his staff put the team through a one-hour skills instruction session.
Under NCAA rules, the Gophers coaches are allowed up to four hours per week of on-ice drills with their team over the next four weeks. Traditional practice – 20 hours per week – will be available for the Gophers beginning Oct. 5, day before their preseason opener against Mount Royal.
Motzko’s quick first impression of the Gophers after a spirited first session was positive.
“It was great, honestly,’’ the second-year Minnesota coach said. “We’re probably one of the last teams in the country to get going because I wanted the guys to have the first week [of fall semester] off. … We spent half our time figuring out who they are, and that’s the fun part about the start of the year.
“Great enthusiasm,’’ he added. “It was a real good first day.’’
The Gophers will mix 12 newcomers, including 11 freshmen, into their 2019-20 roster, with hopes to return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence. Tuesday’s fast-paced session, with players learning the drills via trial and error, was the first step toward that goal.
“Guys are going out of control, which is great when you have that kind of enthusiasm,’’ said Motzko, whose team opens the regular season Oct. 11 and 12 at Colorado College. “They might not be doing the drill right, but they’re doing it hard. It takes a couple weeks until they do the drill right and hard.’’
Motzko and his coaching staff will experiment with line combinations this week. He avoided doing that on paper earlier this summer. “I never pick lines in the summer because I’ve never picked right once to start a year – ever,’’ he said. “So, I quit wasting ink in the summer.’’
A lower-body injury to sophomore Scott Reedy forced Motzko to use freshmen at center on three of the four lines Tuesday, with speedy sophomore Sammy Walker manning the other. “We are young down the middle, but we’re talented down the middle,’’ Motzko said. “We had a couple wily, old veterans there last year. That’s why we were a good defensive team.’’
With Mat Robson off to the Wild organization and Eric Schierhorn graduated, the Gophers will have a new starting goaltender. Freshmen Justen Close and Jared Moe and junior Jack LaFontaine, a transfer from Michigan via Penticton of the BCHL, will compete for a job that’s not nearly decided. “They looked good today when I was watching,’’ Motzko said, “but it’s way too early [to choose].’’
An area in which Motzko sees a difference from his first training camp as Gophers coach is familiarity.
“The biggest thing for me is so much more of a comfort level,’’ he said. “Last year for me, it was coaching staff and all the guys looking at you, and you looking at them, trying to figure each other out. That was a process. … I feel so much more comfortable. That doesn’t always translate to wins and losses, but it’s a good feeling.’’
Motzko said he expects to announce the team’s captains in the next week or two.
“You see some guys really reaching to take leadership roles right now. Great,’’ he said. “They want to win. They want to be successful. They want to be part of something special. We just have to, every day, remind them how we’re going to get there.’’