It was a relatively mild Minnesota winter, which is maybe why Minnesota Gophers captain Sammy Walker is in no rush to get to Florida.
In reality, it is much more simple than that. Walker wants another year to develop, and wants to win a banner in April 2022.
Walker, a Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick, confirmed to The Rink Live on Tuesday that he will return for his senior season in maroon and gold. With Sampo Ranta’s recent signing with Colorado, Walker will be the Gophers’ top returning scorer, after putting up 13 goals and 16 assists in 31 games as a junior.
“I wanted to stay and play another year and try to win a national championship,” said Walker, who is 21 and was named the Big Ten Rookie of the Year as a freshman. “I want another year of development before going pro. I feel that I wasn’t fully ready and another year of college would really help me with that.”
Last week, when Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine announced he also will return for another season at the U of M, he talked of “unfinished business” and the sense that the program is on the cusp of a sixth NCAA hockey title. Walker and LaFontaine won a Big Ten playoff championship this season and made it to a regional final. The mission for 2021-22 is three more wins.
“It’s definitely cool winning a conference championship, but obviously the one you want to win is the national championship,” Walker said. “That’s a big thing coming back and that’s the goal we’re going to try to go for.”
Walker is a true rarity in 100 seasons of Gophers hockey history, as he was named a co-captain as a sophomore, alongside then-senior Tyler Nanne. At the time, Gophers coach Bob Motzko said that he wanted Nanne to handle the heavy lifting of being a captain and let Walker learn and grow into the role. It is believed that Walker will be the first three-year captain in the modern history of the program next season.
“At first, I tried to lead by example on the ice and don’t really say much. Tyler was the ‘rah-rah’ guy who did all that stuff,” Walker said. “After a couple years of growing as a player as a person, I feel like I’ve grown more into the role but I’m still kind of a lead-by-example and not-say-too-much kind of person. I try to treat everyone good and bring the team closer together that way.”
With Ranta and Scott Reedy now playing professionally, and Brannon McManus in the transfer portal, it is likely that the Gophers will need to replace the offense from three of their top six scorer from the 2020-21 season, in which they went 24-7-0 and finished second in the Big Ten. Walker admitted there is excitement about the incoming freshman class, which includes Fargo Force stars Tristan Broz and Aaron Huglen, and USA Hockey standout Chaz Lucius, who is projected to be a first round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.
Moe picks the archrival
A week after entering the transfer portal, former Gophers goalie Jared Moe found a new home, with the team’s archrivals. On Tuesday, Moe announced via Twitter that he is headed to Wisconsin and will compete for the Badgers’ starting goalie job next season.
Moe, who started two games (and won both) for the Gophers in 2020-21, is a sixth-round (2018) draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets and said he was looking for a home where he could play more games. With Badgers senior Robbie Beydoun expected back, it is likely that Moe and Cameron Rowe will platoon for the Badgers in goal as they defend their 2021 Big Ten regular season title.
Speaking with Todd Milewski of the Wisconsin State Journal, Moe admitted it will be a different feeling playing against the Gophers in Minnesota next season.
“I’m sure when we play at Minnesota, I’ll get some good chirps thrown at me,” said Moe, who was 9-5-1 with one shutout in his two seasons with the Gophers. “Probably some that I can’t repeat.”
In an interesting twist, Moe’s last appearance in a game for the U of M came in an 8-1 loss to the Badgers on Feb. 6 at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Moe came on in relief of LaFontaine early in the second period and allowed two goals on nine shots during just over 19 minutes of work.
“It definitely sucks to see him go. He’s a good guy, but it will be fun to play against him,” Walker said of Moe. “I think he’ll like it over there.”
Last week the Gophers got a commitment from Fargo Force goalie Brennan Boynton, who is among the USHL’s goaltending leaders. He is expected to back up LaFontaine as a freshman.
Minnesota Italian community energized by Blasi’s arrival
You don’t need to wear green and drink a Guinness on West Seventh Street in March to know that St. Paul is a town with a massive Irish Catholic community. The prominent figures in city history have included Archbishop John Ireland, mayors named Kelly and Coleman, and the football stadium at the University of St. Thomas is named for Ignatius O’Shaughnessy.
But with the hiring of Rico Blasi as the Tommies’ first Division I hockey coach, there was a swell of pride among the region’s Italian Catholics as well. On the Monday evening Minnesota Wild broadcast on Bally Sports North, play-by-play man Anthony LaPanta said that even a long-time St. John’s devotee like him was excited to have Blasi with the Tommies, in the local hockey community, and noted that it was nice to have a coach, “whose name ends in a vowel.”
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One of the first new co-workers that Blasi met when he got to St. Thomas was successful football coach Glenn Caruso.
“We were meeting with the senior staff this morning, and being a good Italian, Glenn comes into the room, gives me a hug and walks right out,” Blasi said at his introductory press conference. “That’s how we do it in an Italian household, and I knew I was accepted at that point, so we’re good.”
Minnesota State Senator David Tomassoni, who represents the Iron Range in the state legislature and played professional hockey in Italy for 15 years, wished Blasi well, and was quick to remind folks that Blasi is not the first Italian hockey coach to lead a prominent Minnesota college program.
“In the spirit of John Mariucci, a pioneer and a winner with the Gophers program and with the Chicago Blackhawks, Italian-Americans in Minnesota are excited to have Rico here,” Tomassoni said between committee meetings at the State Capitol on Wednesday. “We know he will do great things with the Tommies as they take the big step up to Division I.”
Perhaps it’s worth noting that on West Seventh Street, just down from Xcel Energy Center, there are great Irish bars like Patrick McGovern’s, the Liffey and Shamrocks, but you can also get some outstanding pasta and pizza nearby at Cosetta, DeGidio’s and Yarusso Brothers.