To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag Monday this week. Star Tribune beat writers received many questions about the teams and leagues we cover, and each writer selected at least a couple of questions to answer. Look for a question and answer about each team in Wednesday’s Star Tribune.
The first question was submitted to and answered by Megan Ryan.
Q: Too soon to know with early departures, but Don Lucia won a national championship in Year 3, what are fair expectations for [Bob] Motzko? – @tonyz1986
A: Listen, anything is possible. And I’m kind of liking where the Gophers are going to be next season. They’ll have a returning No. 1 goaltender in Jack LaFontaine. All those young players won’t be so young anymore, with Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Sampo Ranta all upperclassmen. And with the team only losing three seniors, they should be able to pick up where they so suddenly left off this season. They had many moments in the second half of this season where they looked incredible. It’s just stringing those together more consistently. I think they’ll at least make the tournament next year and not even need a desperation Big Ten tournament win to do it.
The second question was submitted to and answered by Randy Johnson.
Q: What do you think will bring people to Mariucci Arena?
A: That’s the million-dollar question when it comes to Gophers hockey, and the basic answer is winning. If the Gophers win at a high level – I’m talking Frozen Fours and national championships, something we’ve seen a lot of recently 150 miles to the northeast – people will return in force to the arena.
There are other measures that could help end the trend that has seen attendance steadily fall from an average of 9,982 in the 10,000-seat arena in 2014-15 to 7,456 in 2019-20. The good news is the university has addressed these factors.
Price: Under former athletic director Norwood Teague, the university increased the scholarship seating requirement for season tickets, a move that didn’t sit well with the fans. Beginning last winter, however, AD Mark Coyle listened to the fans’ concerns and began cutting prices. A second round of price cuts for the 2020-21 season followed in February. Season-ticket prices in the bowl at 3M Arena at Mariucci for 2020-21 range from $500 to $800, including any per-seat contributions. Based on a 22-game home schedule, that’s $22.73 to $36.36 per game.
Schedule: The elephant in the room when it comes to Gophers hockey is the Big Ten. Gophers fans have not warmed to the conference at all, and after seven years in the league, there are few signs that will change. Fans yearn for the good, old days of the WCHA. Well, coach Bob Motzko gave fans a taste of that with Minnesota’s 2019-20 schedule, with visits from Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota, and the Mariucci Classic with Bemidji State, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State. Throw in a trip to Colorado College, and the Gophers had eight of their 10 nonconference games against former WCHA foes. Expect the old WCHA to have a strong presence on future schedules, too.
As for those who want the Gophers hockey program to leave the Big Ten: Try holding your breath and see if that happens. There’s way too much money involved for Minnesota to buck the conference, and the university would have to leave in EVERY sport. The Big Ten distributed $54 million from its TV haul to each of its members, except newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, in fiscal 2018. Bottom line: The Gophers are taking one for the team so the Big Ten can have a hockey conference.
As for the on-ice product, Motzko has the team trending in the right direction. With nine freshmen playing regular roles, the Gophers improved immensely as the 2019-20 season went on. A return to the NCAA tournament -- and making an impact in it -- should be the expectation next season, and this team has the personnel to do so.