Entering his 14th season as Gophers women's hockey coach, Brad Frost has led teams that have hung four of the program's seven national championship banners, the last coming in 2016. So, when Minnesota's chance at securing an eighth title disappeared because of COVID-19 concerns just as the NCAA tournament was to begin last March, it left a mark with Frost and his team.
"Being 36 hours away from playing in an NCAA tournament game and hoping to throw your gloves in the air a week later and having that called off was a fair amount of adversity," Frost said Tuesday during the WCHA women's league video conference. "… They've had to deal with a lot of stuff over the last nine months."
Relief and excitement for the Gophers come Saturday and Sunday, when they open the 2020-21 season against Ohio State at Ridder Arena. The fourth-ranked Gophers and No. 5 Buckeyes will renew rivalries in a matchup that was scheduled to be an NCAA tournament quarterfinal in March, only to see it wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.
"I'm just really grateful for the opportunity to play," Frost said. "I know there's a lot going on around our country and throughout the world, and for us to be able to chase a black puck around is something we're really looking forward to."
Frost has plenty of reasons to look ahead. From a 27-6-3 team last season, he returns eight of the top 10 scorers, led by senior co-captain Grace Zumwinkle, who had 25 goals and 20 assists. The Gophers lost their top goalie in Sydney Scobee, plus such standouts as leading scorer Sarah Potomak and fifth-leading scorer Alex Woken, but graduate transfer Lauren Bench from Bemidji State takes over in goal, and the nation's top class of seven freshmen supplies plenty of reinforcements.
"They're looking great," Zumwinkle said of the freshmen. "When you watch practice, you wouldn't even be able to tell they're freshmen."
Leading that class is forward Abbey Murphy, who was named the WCHA preseason rookie of the year by the conference coaches. The 5-5 speedster from Evergreen Park, Ill., and the Chicago Mission club program was ranked the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2020 by NeutralZone.net.
Frost didn't hold back on his praise for Murphy.
"Abbey is probably the most dynamic player that came out of the U.S. or Canada and probably will be the most dynamic freshman in the country this year," the coach said. "… She's going to be pretty electrifying, and people will see right away why she was voted preseason rookie of the year."
Murphy, who scored the opening goal as the United States beat Canada 2-1 in overtime for the gold medal in the Under-18 world championship in January, is getting used to the college game.
"It's been pretty good," she said. "It's a huge difference from a club team to college. It's faster, more aggressive, girls are bigger, and it's definitely a challenge."
Joining Murphy in that freshman class is defenseman Maggie Nicholson of Minnetonka, the nation's No. 3-ranked recruit. Nicholson, who assisted on the winning goal for the U-18 world champions, has been impressed with her tight-knit classmates.
"Having a big class is one of the best things, and we're all so close, too," she said.
"It's nice that we get along and have all known each other for years before coming to the U. It's so much fun to finally get on the ice with them.''