The Minnesota Gophers are running out of bonding gimmicks. During
their run to the 2002 national championship, most of the team's
players got perms in the postseason, a nod to the luxurious mane
that coach Don Lucia sported at the time. On the way to their
second straight title last spring, they grew traditional playoff
beards. What are the Gophers planning for this season, when they
attempt to become the first Division I hockey team to take three
consecutive championships since Michigan won from 1951 through
'53? Shaved heads? Tattoos? "Some of the guys want to do the
perms again, but I don't know," says senior captain Grant
Potulny. "They stink when you get them."
The debate is premature, but expectations are high in
Minneapolis. With all but three regulars returning, including
superb sophomore left wing Thomas Vanek, whom the Buffalo Sabres
selected with the fifth pick in the NHL draft last June, the
Gophers are talented enough to win again. Despite losing its best
two defensemen to the NHL (Paul Martin and Matt DeMarchi signed
with the New Jersey Devils) and having its top goalie (Travis
Weber) quit for personal reasons, Minnesota was No. 1 in the USA
Today/American Hockey Magazine preseason poll. After the Gophers
split their first two games, a 4-0 loss to Maine and a 7-3 win
over Nebraska-Omaha, they were ranked fourth.
The premier program in the nation was built on the open-door
recruiting policy Lucia instituted when he took over in 1999.
Before he arrived, Minnesota almost exclusively signed homegrown
high school players. Thanks to the wealth of talent in the state,
the provincialism paid off--to a point. The Gophers were regulars
in the NCAA tournament from 1985 through '97, but after winning
the national championship in '79, they went without a title for
23 years. "We had to look outside the state and in junior hockey
to compete with the top teams in the country," says Lucia, 45.
Native sons still dominate the program--19 of the 25 players on
the roster are from Minnesota (as is Lucia, who's from Grand
Rapids)--but nearly everyone has made a stop in juniors before
coming to Minneapolis. "There's a big difference between an
18-year-old freshman and a 20-year-old freshman," says Lucia.
"Kids from juniors are like junior college transfers, only they
still have four years of eligibility."
October 27, 2003
The 19-year-old Vanek is a more traditional underclass age, but
he spent three years in juniors after leaving his native Austria
at 14. The first European to play for the Gophers, he led all
freshmen with 31 goals and 31 assists last year, and was named
the Frozen Four Outstanding Player after scoring game-winners in
the semifinal and final.
Those goals were appreciated by a rabid fan base. Minnesota plays
in the glistening 9,700-seat Mariucci Arena, and the
season-ticket waiting list has 1,800 names. Last season ratings
for Gophers games on local cable TV were higher than those for
the Minnesota Wild. "I'm a small-town guy, so the attention we
get is embarrassing," says Lucia. "Minnesota hockey is part of
the fabric of the state."
Even if all the players aren't.
HOBEY BAKER HOPEFULS
Besides Minnesota Gophers star left wing Thomas Vanek, here are
five players who should be in contention for college hockey's top
individual honor this year.
POS. PLAYER SCHOOL CLASS
G Mike Ayers New Hampshire Senior
SKINNY: Not very big (6 feet, 190 pounds), but he's quick,
fundamentally strong and a top competitor; sixth-round draft
choice by the Blackhawks in 2000.
F Brandon Bochenski North Dakota Junior
[SKINNY]: A pure goal scorer with an innate ability to find
openings in the offensive zone, but needs to work on his
quickness; seventh-round draft pick by the Senators in 2001.
C Ben Eaves Boston College Senior
[SKINNY]: A leader with solid playmaking skills, he's also a
top defensive player who can shut down opponents; fourth-round
draft pick by the Penguins in 2001.
C Zach Parise North Dakota Sophomore
[SKINNY]: Excels despite his size (5'11", 180 pounds) because
he never takes a shift off and has terrific on-ice vision;
first-round draft choice by the Devils in 2003.
F Tim Pettit Harvard Senior
[SKINNY]: A thinker with outstanding finishing ability, he
reminds scouts of Brett Hull; undrafted, he'll be a free agent
after the season.