As a coach of a team that plays on a slippery surface, Bob Motzko knows the value of sure footing. It enables a young squad to walk rather than crawl and a veteran club to sprint rather than jog.
He is hopeful that a roster full of maturing legs operating on firm ice will result in big strides forward in his third season as Gophers men’s hockey coach.
“We’re going to start a season on a base, on solid ground with returning players, great chemistry, a really good hockey team,” Motzko said Monday during a Zoom teleconference after he was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for the 2019-20 season. “That’s part of building a program. It doesn’t guarantee us any wins, but it guarantees we’re going to be able to fight a whole lot stronger to start a season.”
When that 2020-21 season starts, of course, remains uncertain because of the coronavirus pandemic. College hockey sits in a state of limbo, and NCAA President Mark Emmert on Friday said he doesn’t expect fall sports to be played if campuses aren’t open to students. The Gophers season is slated to start Oct. 3.
“First and foremost, in our world, it will be getting school started in the fall and football [starting],” Motzko said. “If that path moves forward, then I think you’re gonna see a path forward for hockey.”
Motzko is eager to see what a Gophers team that featured 19 freshmen or sophomores in 2019-20 can do to improve. After a 5-9-4 start to the season, the Gophers began a 9-2-1 surge by winning the Mariucci Classic. Though Minnesota went 0-2-2 over the final two weekends, missed a chance to clinch the Big Ten regular-season title and finished in a three-way tie for second, the second-half run impressed Big Ten coaches and media members, who honored Motzko.
“It was a little surprising. Our league is so close,” said Motzko, whose contract calls for a $5,000 bonus for winning the Big Ten Coach of the Year award. Like football coach P.J. Fleck and basketball coaches Richard Pitino and Lindsay Whalen, he agreed to take a week pay cut to help the athletic department’s financial situation.
The Gophers (16-14-7) were to visit regular-season champion Penn State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals before the season was canceled on March 12.
“We had just been to Penn State two weeks prior and had leads in both those third periods,” Motzko said. “We were coming up short against a good hockey team — one of the better teams in the country. We’re ready to fight again. We’re ready to fight now to start the season.”
The Gophers lose only three seniors — defensemen Tyler Nanne and Ryan Zuhlsdorf and forward Joey Marooney and return 96% of their goal-scoring, led by All-Big Ten honorable mention forwards Brannon McManus and Sammy Walker. Goalie Jack LaFontaine, a senior-to-be, established himself as the starter late in the season, while Jared Moe earned Big Ten all-freshman honors. Joining Moe on that all-newcomer team were forwards Ben Meyers and defenseman Jackson LaCombe.
Before hockey can be played, coronavirus answers must come.
“Every day we wake up and keep hoping to hear good news, not bad news,” Motzko said. “We all know this will pass. We just hope that in-between time comes sooner than later, that it will pass.’’