MINNEAPOLIS — For their 2020 recruiting class, the Minnesota Gophers emphasized defense, with three of their four newcomers playing on the blue line. On a team which leads all of college hockey with 93 percent of its goals and 87 percent of its points returning, bringing in just one forward made some sense.
But if the early look at the Gophers’ class of 2021 is any indication, young goal-scorers will rule the day.
Wednesday was fall national signing day for all college sports, and while Gophers coach Bob Motzko has generally made it his practice to focus on the current team and talk about next year’s team later. Via Twitter, the program announced two incoming forwards and a third forward posted pictures to social media of a signed national letter of intent.
Officially, two USHLers — Fargo Force forward Tristan Broz and Muskegon Lumberjacks forward Rhett Pitlick — were announced as future Gophers earlier in the day on Wednesday. And USA Hockey National Team Development program forward Chaz Lucius showed off his signed letter of intent, while wearing Gophers colors, on Instagram. By Wednesday evening, Lucius was officially signed.
Pitlick’s is a familiar name in Dinkytown, with his brother, Rem, and his father, Lance, both skating for the Gophers previously. Originally from Chaska, Minn., Pitlick is in his second full USHL season after averaging better than two points-per-game in his final prep campaign for Chaska High School.
Broz, who is from Bloomington, Minn., played two seasons at The Blake School and is in his second full season with the Force. He was recently projected as a potential second- or third-round pick in next year’s NHL Draft.
Lucius, who committed to the Gophers more than three years ago, when he was just 14, is originally from Grant, Minn., and came up in the Gentry Academy system before moving to the USA Hockey program in Plymouth, Mich., last season. NHL Central Scouting has him projected to be a first-rounder next summer.
Depending on how the U of M handles the NCAA declaration that current winter sports athletes may be granted an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, the Gophers are scheduled to lose two high-scoring forwards — Brannon McManus and Scott Reedy — to graduation at the end of the coming season. In addition, there is much talk that juniors Sammy Walker and Sampo Ranta could leave the program early for pro hockey opportunities with Tampa Bay and Colorado, respectively.
Ice conditions, distance Motzko’s only intermission concerns
With the Big Ten’s recent announcement that intermissions between periods would be shortened to 12 minutes, in an effort to lessen the time players spend at the rink, where there is potential for viruses spreading, Motzko has two relatively minor concerns.
“The problem you have is that at some of the rinks, the coaches have a long way to walk. We’ve just got to speed it up a little bit,” he said. “The only concern we really have is will the ice set up in time. If it doesn’t we’re going to be sitting on the bench, waiting for ice to dry. It’s kind of hard in some buildings when you try to speed it up, because the ice isn’t ready.”
The Big Ten is also mandating that anyone on the bench during a game that is not a player must wear a mask at all times. In the past, Motzko has said this is a challenge in practice, as his glasses tend to fog.
“I’m actually getting used to it,” Motzko said, adding that he hasn’t tried a Mike Zimmer-style clear windshield face covering yet. “I think it’s going to be OK.”
Deadline for fan cutouts fast approaching
While students and other fans will not be allowed inside 3M Arena at Mariucci this season, in accordance with state guidelines prohibiting gatherings over 250, for $25 students can be there in spirit. Similar to what has been done at many other sports venues during the pandemic, the U of M Athletic Department is offering fans the chance to submit a cardboard cutout of themselves to be placed in the student section behind the rink’s west net.
Full details are available on the official athletics website, but the deadline of Friday, Nov. 13 is coming up quickly. For a chance to reach out to a Gophers player for free and offer them best wishes for the season, fans can also submit a message that will be placed on a Post-It Note (as expected, in a rink named for the notepad’s inventor, 3M) in the tunnel leading to the ice before the Gophers’ season opener versus Penn State next week.
Fans can submit their Post-It Note message at this link.
Coach fully mended as season begins
The Gophers haven’t played a game yet, so one would rightly expect that they are fully healthy and recovered from any nagging injuries from last season or the off-season. That’s especially true in the case of their coach, after Motzko took some time during the long layoff to get a full knee replacement. Every time he had tried to get the surgery previously, a new job offer seemed to come along.
“I got a new knee, which is something that I put off for five years and I finally had time to do it. I was going to do it in ‘17 and I got the World Junior job. I was going to do it in ‘18 and they gave it back to me. In ‘19 I took a new job with the Gophers and I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I had time to finally do it, and it was bad. I’m at a whole different level, letting you under the hood on something like that...but getting a total knee replacement was a two- or three-month process that you’ve really got to put time in.”
Like most Americans when normal life shut down last March, the Motzko family had some rare time together in close quarters.
“We were doing things at home with our family that we would never have done — cleaning out scrapbooks, looking at old videos,” Motzko said. “We all have videos of our kids, but sorry, who ever watches them? We actually started watching them and we had some real good family time for a few weeks. It got old after a few weeks and then my wife booted me out of the house and said, ‘Go for a drive.’ But we did things like that early, and then I went on the IR and took care of an old injury.”