Penn State is coming to town for a men’s hockey series this weekend, which means it is time to relitigate (again) how the Nittany Lions ruined college hockey.
If Penn State hadn’t added men’s hockey – the announcement came way back in 2010, with Division I play beginning in 2012-13 – there wouldn’t be Big Ten hockey right now. That was the sixth team needed to form a conference, which happened in 2013-14, as every Gophers fan in the world knows.
That broke up the old WCHA, severed or weakened old rivalries, and put the Gophers into a death spiral from which they still haven’t recovered – as every Gophers fan in the world would contend.
Attendance has plummeted, and nothing will ever be the same again.
Yes. But …
I’m tired of this narrative, even if I believe there are a lot of truths contained with in it. There has to be some sort of statute of limitations on these constant ruminations – a way to lament what was lost and why it was lost, sure, but also to maybe move on and try to embrace the future?
I’m trying to get there, trying harder than I probably have in the last five years when I’ve let bitterness and great memories from old WCHA rivalries – half of it as a kid growing up in Grand Forks, the other half living in Minneapolis – keep me from paying much attention at all to college hockey.
It’s easier to make Big Ten hockey a punchline when it produces just one NCAA tournament team (as it did in 2014-15, with the Gophers the sole representative making a quick exit). It’s easy to see an announced crowd of 2,000 for a Big Ten tournament game at Mariucci, er, 3M Arena at Mariucci (as happened just last season) and announce that college hockey here is on life support – killed by greed and watered down competition.
Yes. But …
Penn State is the No. 8 team in the country in the latest poll. Notre Dame, which joined the Big Ten more recently, is No. 4. Ohio State is No. 11. Wisconsin, the Gophers’ lone counterpart in the WCHA-to-Big Ten move, is No. 15.
The conference is fine. It’s not the old WCHA, but guess what? The Gophers already played familiar old foes Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth this season. There’s a home series with North Dakota on Nov. 28-29, leading right into Gophers/Badgers football on the 30th in what could be the greatest weekend ever. Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Bemidji State are here for the Mariucci Classic in late December.
The schedule is better than fine.
Tuesday afternoon, I asked second-year Gophers coach Bob Motzko whether it’s time for fans to stop worrying about the “good old days” and embrace modern college (and Gophers) hockey.
Motzko played at St. Cloud State, was an assistant for two Gophers NCAA title teams, was St. Cloud State’s head coach during college hockey’s realignment and is now here, presiding over a young and rebuilding team that is not ranked in the top 20 – making him overqualified, perhaps, to answer that question.
“Our fans are awfully smart hockey people,” he said. “They want to see us competing hard and of course they want to see us win. Our guys want to win. We have to continue to get better and move forward as a hockey program right now.”
He circled back on the point later in his media session.
“We totally understand ‘the old’ (days),” Motzko said. “Gopher hockey is 4-4-2. We had leads in two of those four losses, where we really point to some youth and it would look a whole lot different if it weren’t, but that’s what it is. I have to completely guard our team against social media or what the media might be saying because they have great attitudes and we are getting better. Nineteen freshmen and sophomores, I can’t ask for anything more right now. … Is it going to be smooth sailing the rest of the way? Not a chance. But we’re going to keep our foot on the pedal. There are brighter days ahead, I can tell you that. We have to fight to get through the clouds to find them.”
Indeed, winning would cure a lot of ills. Since reaching the NCAA title game in 2013-14, the first year of the Big Ten, Minnesota has made the tournament just twice in five seasons (and been one-and-done both times).
Motzko is playing the long game, and if you listen to his players there might be some parallels between what he’s building and what P.J. Fleck has done with the football program – just on a different timeline and with different expectations based on past success in the last half-century.
“Coach Bob is changing the culture with hockey,” said goalie Jack LaFontaine.
As for Penn State?
“Huge. For me, it’s really huge. I think it was my sophomore season that they beat us four in a row to boot us out of (NCAA contention),” said Ryan Zuhlsdorf, a senior defenseman from Edina, about the budding rivalry. “Whenever we go into their building it’s always a hostile environment. They have a couple guys on their team that play with a chip on their shoulder. I like to think I play with a chip on my shoulder. Whenever we meet, it’s a good battle and I enjoy it.”
The past is an awfully big place to live. Maybe it helps to think about the Nittany Lions as a new rival instead of the program that ruined everything.
Motzko, for one, is inclined to look in the mirror and see optimism. As he walked out of his media session, he seemed to be thinking about the past and the future.
“We’ll get back to the old days someday,” he called out.