Minneapolis, Minn. — When Minnesota AD Mark Coyle introduced Bob Motzko as his next head men’s hockey coach in March 2018, Motzko took the podium and immediately acknowledged the expectations for the job.
“I fully understand what’s in front of me. I think every coach going back to John Mariucci has played for a national championship, this is a pretty powerful program,” said Motzko. “The history and the tradition of Gopher Hockey is one of the greatest in the country. It’s part of the culture and part of the fabric of this state.”
There have been a few interim coaches along the way, but full time coaches have made 12 trips to the final game of the NCAA season coaching the Pride on Ice. Mariucci coached Minnesota to their first title games in 1953 and 1954, Glen Sonmor led the Gophers to the championship in 1971, Herb Brooks made four trips while famously winning titles in 1974, 1976 and 1979, Brad Buetow took a team to the final game in 1981, Doug Woog had heartbreaking loss to Harvard in 1989 and Don Lucia won the most recent titles for Minnesota in 2002 and 2003 to go along with a runner-up in 2014.
Motzko’s team came up short of making the championship last after falling to Minnesota State in a Boston Frozen Four semifinal last season, but his team this year has thundered their way through the second strongest schedule in college hockey as the No. 1 overall team from the initial polls to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and now travel to Tampa Bay as the No. 1 favorite to win the title.
The Gophers have been buoyed by their defensive corps this season that ended up deeper than anyone could have expected. The blue line has been blessed with so much depth that the Gophers have routinely played seven defensemen most nights during the season and rarely is there a seventh defensemen sitting on the bench as an insurance policy, they’re in the lineup to play.
It wasn’t clear that this would be the case as early departures that routinely happen in college hockey were expected and the coaching staff wasn’t realistically planning for even one of Brock Faber, Ryan Johnson or Jackson LaCombe to return for the 2022-23 season. Faber was a Los Angeles Kings second round pick (he’s since been traded to the Minnesota Wild) that had shined all season for the Gophers winning the league defensive player of the year award, wearing the ‘C’ for Team USA at the World Junior Tournament and leading Team USA in ice time during the Olympics in Beijing. Ryan Johnson was a Buffalo Sabres first round pick that has shown NHL level skating that made him attractive to the professional pipeline. Jackson LaCombe was an Anaheim Ducks second round pick and it seemed like a pro contract was waiting for him after an All-America junior season where he racked up points running the power play.
Yet, all three players surprised the coaching staff by making the decision one by one to return for another go in Minneapolis. Motzko knows that Ryan’s dad and NHL alum Craig Johnson & Jackson’s dad CAA agent Chris LaCombe clearly provided players with more than enough information to make the best decision for them and returning to college signaled to the coach that the student athletes were having fun and in it for the long haul.
Faber’s decision was the first one of the trio to announce his return and it meant the Gopher line chart would have a top pair shutdown defenseman able to play as many minutes as the coaching staff would allow.
“What’s crazy is he wanted to be the leader. Like it was almost, [I’m coming back to captain this team.] I was like, well let’s see what your teammates think and of course, they thought the same thing.” said Motzko. “He wanted that role, but also as an upperclassman… this is one of the first times he’s been an older guy on a team and he’s still 20.”
“He’s excited because his play is elevated. He’s making more plays. He’s involved in the offense. He’s not just out there defending, which he takes such great pride in. You’ve just seen Brock take a monster step as a player, he is a born leader and he’s been awesome. It’s been fun to sit back and watch his game.”
The junior defensemen doesn’t turn 21 until August later this year, but his play on the ice this season just shows how valuable he is to the Gophers by playing the team’s heaviest minutes to shut down the opponent’s top players, killing penalties and closing down plays to get his team in transition. Playing seven defensemen has meant less ice time for Faber and he rarely plays on the power play, but the junior still has a career high four goals and 21 assists. Most importantly for Faber is that they’ve made it back to the Frozen Four.
“You come back for obviously a lot more than just winning a national championship, but that’s a big reason for it. It’s hard not to since day one just look forward to this,” said Faber. “There’s so much work that has to go in to get here and it’s just a credit to the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff because it is a special group and it’s hard to look forward when you’re just enjoying everyday here.”
Having those three players back has meant that the rest of the defensive corps has played less high profile roles, but that doesn’t mean they are big contributors for the Gophers. Junior Mike Koster has five goals and 22 assists on the year, the Maple Leaf fifth round pick has been an important piece for the second power play unit and even the first unit when LaCombe picked up a lower body injury that held him out for a few weekends before the playoffs. Freshman Luke Mittelstadt has been one of the biggest surprises of Minnesota’s freshman class. After being passed over in the NHL Draft despite a strong season in the USHL, he stepped right into the Gopher’s blue line as a key piece playing regular minutes including some second unit power play time and was named to the All-B1G Freshman Team.
redshirt this season after playing 96 games for the Gophers over the past three seasons. Freshman Ryan Chesley had a slow start the first half of the season, but he has played a more noticeable physical game during the second half as the Washington Capitals second round pick is finding spots to impact the flow. Freshman Cal Thomas has played in every game for the Gophers this season acclimating to college hockey and the Arizona Coyotes sixth rounder has gotten some opportunities to help out on the penalty kill as well. Carl Fish has entered the lineup seven times and fit right in when injuries or illness pop up.
The Gophers are hoping that they have gotten through those injuries and illness with the final weekend of the season coming up. Faber dealt with a shoulder injury earlier in the season, but said in the week before the Frozen Four that he feels fine from that recovery and has also nearly put back on the 14 pounds he lost due to illness before the Michigan State playoff game. LaCombe also looks ready to play a big role in the Frozen Four after recovering from a lower body injury that held him out of some games down the stretch and left him rusty for the B10 Championship game. If those two are indeed back to full strength then Minnesota’s defense will be a difference maker as the Gophers try to get to the title game.
“I don’t put the standings up in our locker room. We don’t talk about it. We want to be in the NCAA tournament,” said Motzko. “I do talk about that.. we go for the playoff one. We’ve lost that two years in a row after getting it once. You want to be playing your best hockey at the end of the year. And I think we’re getting back to it right now after being off a little bit.”