In the evening after Bob Motzko took the job as the Gophers men's hockey coach, his oldest son went for a drive.
It wasn't a long trip last March, maybe about 10 minutes to span the 3 miles from the Motzko home in St. Cloud to the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. Seventeen-year-old Mack had his own locker in the St. Cloud State locker room and had been hanging out at the rink practically every day after school for more than a decade.
But he wasn't there to skate that night. Instead, he cleared out his equipment, preparing to make a clean break from the only college program he'd ever known as his father readied to take the helm of the in-state rival.
"That was the hardest, hardest thing of leaving St. Cloud was my middle son," Motzko, a father of three, said. "He didn't think they wanted him around. And the captains of the team called and said, 'You get back here.' … They brought him right back in.
"They took over and took care of my son."
That's the kind of culture Motzko built in 13 seasons with the Huskies, a program he led to eight NCAA tournaments. He'll seek to recreate that family atmosphere with the Gophers, who play their first game of the Motzko era Saturday in Duluth against the defending national champions.
But the 57-year-old coach recognizes that bond takes time to build, and he doesn't even know all his players' names yet. He's called at least a dozen of them the wrong name, finally resorting to: "Hey, you." Practicing in helmets with tiny numbers on the back hasn't helped either because Motzko hasn't memorized their jerseys. Senior captain Tyler Sheehy said Motzko has joked he's going to write everyone's name on tape and stick it to their helmets, just like in mites hockey.
Despite the team only just having made it through the awkward feeling-out process of a new coach, Sheehy said it's clear how Motzko will bring a different vibe to the program.
"He really wants to build relationships with players and get to know them," Sheehy said. "Other than just being a coach who's just a coach, [he's] being a coach who is interactive with his players and gets along with the guys, and he wants to be in the loop.
"The guys are really going to respect him. They're going to listen and relay everything that he has to say to the ice … and just play hockey, which I think maybe has been missing."
When Motzko first took the St. Cloud State job, his daughter, Ella, was going into first grade. Mack was a preschooler. And his youngest son, Beau, had just been born. Through the years, Motzko and his wife, Shelley, built a routine around hockey. Motzko would drive the kids to school as a way to fit in some quality time. He'd try to attend about a dozen of Mack's and Beau's youth games.
But the whole family would convene to watch Dad coach the Huskies. And that tradition should continue with the Gophers.
Ella Motzko is a sophomore at Minnesota — her dad jokes she went away to college and the family followed her — and has a kinesiology lab in 3M Arena at Mariucci. She spends at least an hour a week hanging out in her dad's office doing homework while he works on hockey.
Separating Coach from Dad is impossible, Ella said, because both bring a lot of heart to what they do.
"He's the same person in all of that — he's very honest with his expectations," she said. "With everything he says, he really means it. He's a very genuine person. That's why a lot of people are fans or become fans of him because you know when he's talking to you, he's listening to you. You know when he's giving you ideas that they're genuine ideas, and he's excited to tell you about it."
Motzko's assistant, Garrett Raboin, played four years under Motzko at St. Cloud State, including three as captain. He joined Motzko's staff in 2012-13 and made the move with him to the Gophers. Raboin said when he first met Motzko in 2006 during a quick recruiting process, he immediately felt like Motzko was someone to trust.
Sheehy said that personality came across in just the few one-on-one meetings he's had with his coach so far.
"He's a really down-to-earth guy, easy to talk to," Sheehy said. "He's kind of made it clear to us that if there's something that's going on, or if he makes a mistake, and the guys are thinking it, he wants to know from us what he can do better. … He doesn't want it to be a dictatorship, which is kind of cool. I think part of his personality is just being a players' coach."
Here for the hockey
Motzko had been looking forward to a quiet summer, planning to head Up North to his cabin and fish. But then he took the Gophers job shortly after St. Cloud State's season ended and went only once, instead spending his offseason familiarizing himself with his new players and meeting more than 100 Gophers alumni.
But it doesn't bother Motzko to say "next summer" to his best-laid plans. He loves the job, the recruiting, the traveling. His daughter said one of his catchphrases is, "I'm just here for the hockey."
Well, and every other Minnesota sport. The Austin, Minn., native declared himself a big Twins fan, die-hard Vikings fan and passionate North Stars fan who has finally come around to the Wild.
He said people can't be in the same room with him during Vikings games, when he wears purple and gold from head to toe and screams at the TV.
That yelling doesn't often translate to the practices he runs, though. The coach prefers up-tempo drills and avoids time spent drawing up plays on the whiteboard in favor of freeing up players to tap into their instincts. And while he had ambitious hopes of having his players completely comfortable with his fast system in time for the first game, he's realized now the team's "in but not settled."
His son Mack also will take some time to feel comfortable around his dad's new program. Sheehy said Mack spent about a week this past summer with the Gophers. And maybe those moments will happen more often as time passes.
"That was his world, and we've told him, 'It's OK. You cheer for who you want to cheer for,' " Motzko said. "He for sure cheers for Dad, but he has strong allegiances, strong ties to St. Cloud. That's the one place he knows for school, and he was really close with our program and our players. Those players treated him unbelievable after I left. They still make him feel very welcome and part of the program.
"That's one of the real cool things in coaching college, where your kids get to be a part of it."