Bob Motzko’s devotion to hockey began with a knock on the door.
Jim Sack, president of the Austin, Minn., youth hockey association when Motzko was a fourth-grader, was going door-to-door, recruiting youngsters to play.
“He knocked on our door and said, ‘How many boys do you have?’ Didn’t even say what his name was, just, ‘How many boys do you have?’ ” Motzko said. “I remember my dad said, ‘Three.’
“Well, they just signed up for hockey.’ And I’ve had a love affair with the sport from then.”
That love affair has taken Motzko from Austin to Dubuque, Iowa; to Oxford, Ohio; to Sioux Falls; to St. Cloud; and many stops in between. And finally, it landed him at a place that kept calling his name — on the University of Minnesota campus, as head coach of the men’s hockey team.
“This was a job that you only get one kick at the can, and it was there,” Motzko said while being introduced at the U on Thursday. “… This is an outstanding opportunity. I don’t have magical words. I’m excited to be here.”
Motzko, 57, takes over the Gophers program after 13 seasons building St. Cloud State into a national contender. Now, he’s charged with restoring the glory of a pressure-packed Minnesota program that has missed the NCAA tournament in two of the past three seasons and hasn’t won a national championship since 2003, when, not so coincidentally, Motzko was an assistant to Don Lucia.
“I told him the other day, ‘Congratulations. I’m happy for you — I think,’ ” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore, a longtime friend, employer, competitor and confidante. “What college coach wouldn’t be interested in drinking that drink? But the only problem is, there’s a massive hangover that potentially comes with that job.”
A worker, a leader
That knock on the door led to Motzko’s becoming an All-Big Nine forward for the Austin High School Packers. His coach at time, Greg Rajanen, remembers a hard worker and solid leader.
“His work habits were so good,” said Rajanen, now a scout for NHL Central Scouting. “Whether it was practice or a game, you never had to worry about him competing.”
After graduating from Austin in 1979, Motzko wanted to play Division I hockey, and to help get the chance, he first joined the Austin Mavericks and then the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League. At Waterloo, he was under the wing of coach Jack Barzee.
“When Bobby gets here, he’s a baby-faced fresh kid — skates like the wind, scores goals,” said Barzee, a retired scout for NHL Central Scouting. “But he wasn’t what you would call one of those intimidating guys who would physically be involved in the game. He was a dancer. He could dance.”
Barzee left Waterloo for the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints for the 1980-81 season, and he brought Motzko and four teammates with him. The Saints went on to win the league championship and national tournament. During that tournament, Barzee saw the competitive side of Motzko when he sat his line because of lackluster play.
“Bobby’s calling me every name in the book,” Barzee said, chuckling. “We get a penalty, and I send his line out and I think they scored two shorthanded goals.” Upon returning to the bench, Motzko shot his coach a glare and fired a couple of choice words at him. “He needed his buttons pressed a few times,” Barzee said.
After two years in the USHL, Motzko took a shot at his dream — playing for the Gophers. But he was cut two years in a row by coach Brad Buetow and transferred to St. Cloud State, Division II at the time. He was a two-time letter-winner for the Huskies before deciding to become a coach during the 1986-87 season.
“It was my third year there, I walked in when [coach] Herb Brooks was there,” Motzko said. “They said, ‘Here’s your workout packet.’ I said, ‘I’m not here to work out anymore. I want to coach. I want to try this.’ This is Herb Brooks. And they let me on the staff. And then I knew I wanted to coach.”
From St. Cloud, Motzko went to Mason City, Iowa, where he became coach and general manager of the USHL’s North Iowa Huskies from 1987-91, leading the team to a Junior A national title in 1989. During that time, Motzko and Serratore, then the coach/GM of the Omaha Lancers, became close friends.
“Bob’s a fun guy to be around. I like to have fun, too, so he and I had a lot of fun together,” Serratore said. “The statute of limitations is up on most of our shenanigans.”
Motzko left the USHL to become an assistant coach at Miami (Ohio) in 1991-92, where he worked under George Gwozdecky, who later won two NCAA titles at Denver. Gwozdecky remembers a coach who was eager to teach.
“I had to stop him from jumping into the drills during our practices, because he was so used to doing that,” said Gwozdecky, now a high school coach in Colorado. “He’d put his ballcap on backwards and get after it in the drills.”
During the 1990s, Miami wasn’t a fully funded program and its recruiting budget was limited, so Gwozdecky and his staff recruited mainly in Michigan and Ontario. Motzko, however, wanted to expand their territory to western Canada.
“He wanted to go into Saskatchewan,” Gwozdecky said. “He had this vision of watching all these tough farm boys that were playing in the National Hockey League and other schools, that we needed to dive into that recruiting base as well.”
To make ends meet on those long trips from Oxford to Saskatoon, Regina and Melville, Motzko would stay in YMCAs rather than hotels. “It didn’t matter how little we had,” Gwozdecky said, “he was going to make the best of it.”
Back to Minnesota
Motzko spent a year as an assistant to Serratore at Denver, but the Pioneers let Serratore go following the 1993-94 season, and Motzko ended up back at Miami for four seasons. From there, it was back to the USHL to be the inaugural coach and GM of the Sioux Falls Stampede for two seasons.
Then Lucia and the Gophers came calling.
“When Bob came in, he was exactly what I was looking for at the time,” Lucia said. “… I thought he’d be a perfect fit, and he was. He had a lot to do with us winning.”
In Motzko’s first season in Dinkytown, the Gophers won the 2002 championship at Xcel Energy Center, ending a 23-year national title drought. The next year, with one of his players from the Stampede, freshman Thomas Vanek, playing a starring role, Minnesota repeated as national champion.
A third Frozen Four appearance followed in 2005, and then Motzko left to become an assistant at St. Cloud State. When Craig Dahl resigned that September, Motzko took over. In his 13 years in the Granite City, he led the Huskies to eight NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2013 Frozen Four.
Now comes his most high-profile challenge. Serratore believes Motzko will excel.
“Bob’s going in there with his eyes wide open. He knows what he’s getting into. He’s excited about it, he’s ready for it,” Serratore said. “The University of Minnesota made a fabulous choice.’’