MINNEAPOLIS — Hockey is played on a slippery surface. Even with blades of steel on your feet, getting your footing on ice isn’t always easy.
On the eve of his third season in his current job, Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko can relate to trying — and sometimes failing — to get traction. He has used the analogy that in Year 1 and Year 2, he and his staff were trying to run in sand.
In his first season, most of the Gophers were players Motzko didn’t recruit, who needed to learn about him and he about them. Last season, things were a bit more familiar, but the Gophers had a dozen new faces in the locker room and had to take their lumps with many freshmen in key positions.
“You can’t speed up the process with freshmen. It took us until Christmas with 19 freshmen and sophomores,” Motzko said, noting a team that was 5-9-4 at the holiday break, and 11-5-3 after the Yule log was torched. “After Christmas that team took off...and we had some hard lumps in there, but we knew we had the right guys.”
This season, with four new faces in the lineup, nine of the team’s top 10 scorers returning and all three of their goalies back, Motzko equates it to running on concrete. Getting traction is easy, and you are primed for a fast start. The coach admitted on Tuesday that he was not overly surprised to see the Big Ten coaches pick his team to win the league title, with a few caveats.
“This is November and we haven’t played a game yet, and I’ve always thought that coaches polls to pick a season are silly, but I know it’s tradition and I know it’s for fans,” Motzko said on Tuesday, meeting with the press via Zoom during Big Ten preview week. “It really comes from the fact that we had a strong second half last year and we’re right knocking on the door, and we’ve got a lot of returning players. It’s kind of ‘tag, you’re it,' and we get it. You can’t hide that we’ve got a good hockey team returning.”
Just when and if that team would return was, of course, the burning question for much of the fall. The team started practice in September not knowing when they would have games. Motzko admitted that he thinks the players were doubtful of the repeated assurances that they would have a season during the long days of October, with nothing real on the schedule.
He said the team was pretty “amped up” a month ago, and the coaches had to back off a little, providing more days off, to prevent physical and mental burnout. The Gophers learned last week that the season starts Thursday, Nov. 19, with a home game versus Penn State.
“I think once our guys saw a date and a team, it was like getting married. We’ve got a ring and we’ve got a date, and we’ve got that now to get started,” Motzko said. “You’re seeing them get dialed back in again.”
There have been pandemic-related changes to be sure, with the team currently occupying three locker rooms inside 3M Arena at Mariucci to ensure that players are as socially distant as possible. Their only time together as an entire 26-man roster comes on the ice. For video sessions, the players are broken down by positions, as coaches review video with just the goalies, just the defensemen or just the forwards. Because there are 14 forwards, they meet in two separate groups.
And just like last year’s team that grew as the season went on, there is an emphasis on these Gophers getting better as the season progresses, and not resting on past accomplishments.
“Our biggest challenge here is that we have an entire group of guys that needs to take that next step,” Motzko said. “Everybody knows Sammy Walker and (Blake) McLaughlin and (Sampo) Ranta and (Brannon) McManus last year. Those guys had good years, but they have to take that next elite step. They’ve got to go from 30 points to 40 points.”
The milestones are clear, for a program that last won a conference title and played in the NCAA tournament in 2017, last played in a Frozen Four in 2014 and last won a national title in 2003. Getting back there, Motzko feels, will require more out of every aspect of the Gophers’ game.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’ve got one monster step yet to take.”