Any sting Mike Guentzel felt after an early exit from the NCAA tournament has been masked by an opportunity he rarely gets: being a hockey dad. The day after the Gophers’ season ended in March, Minnesota’s associate head coach shifted his focus to Jake, his youngest son, and boarded a plane to South Bend, Ind.
A first-round loss to Minnesota Duluth cleared Mike’s schedule, enabling him to attend Nebraska Omaha’s Midwest Regional semifinal and championship games. It was the first time since December he saw Jake, a Mavericks sophomore, play without staring into an iPad.
The rare opportunity warranted celebration. The tough, gritty coach let his guard down when Omaha clinched a spot in the Frozen Four and was seen pumping his fist by his oldest son, Ryan, who played in two Frozen Fours in 2008 and 2011 with Notre Dame.
Jake, a forward who played at Hill-Murray before leaving for the USHL after his junior season, got a thrill out of imagining his dad celebrate this moment.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, so it’s pretty exciting knowing he’s into it and knowing he’s happy for me,” Jake said. “When my mom told me he was coming, I got pretty excited. Knowing he’d do whatever he could to get to my game and be a father for me is a special feeling. And knowing he’ll be there this weekend is even more special.”
Jake will be the third Guentzel in the immediate family to play in the Frozen Four when Omaha faces Providence in Thursday’s semifinal in Boston. Mike played in the Frozen Four with the Gophers in 1983 and has coached in six Frozen Fours and won two national championships with the program.
“It’s hard to explain,” what this means, Mike said about getting the chance to see another son play in the Frozen Four. “It’s great when you get do it as a player, and as a coach being there is fun but, when it’s your kids there, it’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Though he has plenty to celebrate as a dad, the coach in him had to mourn this season’s disappointment.
“I’d rather be playing, first and foremost,” he said. “I’d like to see the Gophers playing for a championship, especially when you look at where we were this time last year and not being there this year is disappointing. The next best thing is for Jake to have this opportunity, and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Jake knows his dad can be a tough critic, but he’d rather have him analyzing in the stands than not be there. The tough feedback has helped Jake emerge as one of the top players in college hockey. He leads the Mavericks with 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists) and centers the first line as a true sophomore. He was named an All-NCHC honorable mention and scored three points (one goal, two assists) in the Midwest Regional.
“He never gets to watch, so obviously it’s exciting and makes me a little more excited to play when he gets to watch,” Jake said.
Jake is one of eight Minnesotans on Omaha’s roster that’s coached by former Gophers standout and International Falls, Minn., native Dean Blais.
Mike was an assistant coach at Omaha for one season (2010-2011) and spent two years as head coach and general manager of the USHL’s Omaha Lancers from 1992-1994.
All three of Mike and Sally’s sons — Ryan (Notre Dame), Gabe (Colorado College) and Jake (Omaha) — played Division I college hockey. Mike and his two eldest sons were captains, and Jake is on his way to earning that honor as he leads the 18-year-old Omaha program into a new era of success.
“All of us have been fortunate enough to grow up around our father who’s been around this game his whole life,” Ryan said. “Sometimes my dad can be real challenging to play for as a son because he expects so much out of you, but it also has its perks. … But it’s kind of nice [for dad to get a chance to] just be a parent once in a while, too.”
Jake said he remembers attending five Frozen Fours, two for Ryan and three for his dad, and has a good understanding of what the weekend entails.
“The fact that three out of four [men in the Guentzel family] have played in the Frozen Four, it’s surreal,” Jake said.