MINNEAPOLIS – Chris Brown was a youth hockey player in south Minneapolis and learned to love the game there before his parents moved to Watertown, Minnesota, just west of the Twin Cities. These were the early 1980s, and before open enrollment existed, living in a school district with no hockey, Brown was pretty much out of luck.

Today, Brown may be the only Minnesotan coaching Division I hockey who did not play high school hockey. For lack of a prep team, Brown played Junior Gold in Watertown then made his way to a USHL tryout with the North Iowa Huskies, which had a young coach just getting his start in the business.

“Bob Motzko cut me. He probably doesn’t even remember that,” said Brown, who is in his first season as an assistant coach at Alaska. “After high school I went back and got cut again by Bob, then I got a tryout in Waterloo and made the team.”

Asked what he recalled about an 18-year-old from Watertown trying out for his first USHL team 35 years ago, Motzko chuckled.

“At my age, living back in Minnesota, I’ve been approached two dozen times now by people that ask, ‘Do you remember me?’ ‘No, where did we meet?’ ‘You cut me,’” Motzko said. “And then I always follow with the same question: ‘Did I make a mistake?’ I have yet to have a guy tell me, ‘Yeah, you did.’ That’s happened to me a lot.”

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Brown, 51, ended up playing at Wisconsin-River Falls for four years, then moving behind the bench. His first head coaching position was at Marian College in Wisconsin, and in 2006 he took over the Augsburg program, running the show for the Auggies until the summer of 2021. The Brown family had an empty nest, with a daughter playing college hockey at St. Benedict and a son skating for Fargo in the USHL. The time seemed right for a new challenge.

“The stars just kind of aligned and my wife and I said, it’s time to go for it,” Brown said. “Now that the kids were gone, it was like, what else is out there. Well, you don’t know unless you try something new.”

That new thing has been a challenging year with the Nanooks, who are one of the rare independent programs in D-I hockey. They are 5-14-1 overall heading into this weekend’s games versus the Gophers, and spent the week in Minneapolis after a split at Maine last weekend. Brown is enjoying the challenge, and enjoying watching Augsburg’s success under new coach Greg May, who played for Brown when the former was a senior and the latter was a first-year head coach of the Auggies.

Being a little younger coach, I think they really relate to him and play hard for him,” Brown said of May, who has Augsburg off to a 13-2 start. “Obviously he’s pushing all the right buttons and making all the right moves, and it’s fun to watch how he’s using players differently than I did, in a good way. Maybe better than I did. Sometimes that’s what happens when you get a new set of eyes in there and they see different things in a player.”

As for adjusting to life in Alaska in the winter, Brown said the weather is not dramatically different from Minnesota, and after more than a dozen years of riding the bus in the MIAC, the extensive air travel to and from the Last Frontier is actually enjoyable.

“It’s exciting. It’s rejuvenating,” Brown said. “It’s so different for me from what I was used to.”

Minnesota co-captain Ben Meyers battled for a puck with Michigan's Kent Johnson in the second period of the Gophers' 5-1 win over the Wolverines on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich. Jonathan Knight / Knight Photography
Minnesota co-captain Ben Meyers battled for a puck with Michigan's Kent Johnson in the second period of the Gophers' 5-1 win over the Wolverines on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich. Jonathan Knight / Knight Photography

Meyers a Hobey nominee

Unlike Kirby Puckett’s famous declaration before willing the Minnesota Twins to a win in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Ben Meyers didn’t actually tell the Gophers to get on his back. That’s not in his reserved nature. He just went out on the ice and did it, scoring four of his team’s 10 goals on the weekend and being named the Big Ten’s No. 1 star of the week.

The news got better on Wednesday, as Meyers was named the Gophers leading candidate for the Hobey Baker Award as fan voting for the trophy opened.

“He kind of does this every second half where he gets a little giddy-up in his game, and he’s awful special,” Motzko said of the offensive outburst by Meyers, who played through an injury in November which limited his production. “He’s got it shifted into gear right now.”

After 20 games, Meyers leads the team in points with 23 and is tied for the team lead in goals (9) and assists (14). Of note, also nominated for the award by Bowling Green was former Gopher Nathan Burke, who is leading the Falcons with 13 goals in 22 games.

A full list of nominees and fan voting details are available at the Hobey Baker Award website.

Stauber faces famous names

If Jack LaFontaine plays in goal for the Carolina Hurricanes, he will be the first former Gopher to appear in the crease for a NHL game since April 7, 2018. That night, Adam Wilcox played the final two periods for the Buffalo Sabres in a 4-3 defeat at Florida and took the loss despite only surrendering an empty net goal late in the game.

If LaFontaine gets a start for the Canes, he will be the first former Gopher to get that nod in more than 25 years. On May 3, 1995 at the since-demolished Aud in Buffalo, Robb Stauber won a 5-4 game for the Sabres, beating a New Jersey Devils team that captured the Stanley Cup less than two months later.

On the Devils bench that night were many familiar names, including former Gophers Neal Broten, Tom Chorske and Chris McAlpine, current Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin, former Minnesota Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire and current Michigan State head coach Danton Cole.

Weekend details

Both the Friday and Saturday Gophers games versus Alaska start at 6 p.m. CT (3 p.m. in Fairbanks). The nonconference games will be televised by Bally Sports North with Charlie Beattie on play-by-play for both. Ben Clymer will be the analyst on Friday, and Gigi Marvin will fill that role on Saturday. For our friends north of the border, the games will also be aired on TSN in Canada.

On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco describing the action. Postgame interviews with coach Motzko and Gophers players can be seen live, roughly 10 minutes after the final horn at The Rink Live’s Facebook page.

The Gophers are 3-1-1 all-time versus Alaska. Their most recent meeting was a 3-1 Minnesota win on Oct. 9, 2016 in Anchorage. They first met on ice in Jan. 8-9, 1936, in Minneapolis, when the Nanooks were known as Fairbanks-Dawson. The Gophers won a pair of one-goal games that weekend.