It’s been a long, seven-year odyssey for the Minnesota hockey team and its fans.
The program, which owns the all-time record for wins in college hockey, is finally back where it feels it belongs – in the NCAA Frozen Four, competing for its fourth national championship tonight at 7:30 p.m. against Michigan at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
The Golden Gophers made their last trip to the Frozen Four in 1995, and a return trip has not been easy to come by. Hit hard by many of its star players leaving early for the NHL, Minnesota could not get over the hump in the next four seasons. Doug Woog, the Golden Gophers’ coach for more than a decade, paid the price in 1999, when he was fired in favor of current coach Don Lucia, who came over from Colorado College.
“They’ve lost a lot of great players that each year would have been their leaders,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “They never quite got to where everybody thought they should.”
Lucia took over a team that needed direction and a new attitude, and in his first season, the Golden Gophers finished just one game above .500.
“We had to become a team again,” Lucia said. “I saw pockets of people (who were) worried about themselves and not the team. I’ve never been a part of a team who didn’t care about each other and get along.”
But three years after taking the job at Minnesota, Lucia – with the help of a strong senior class – has his team in position to win its first national title since 1979.
“(Our chemistry) changed last year,” said Lucia, whose team fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season. “There was much more sense of a team.”
While the Golden Gophers spent seven years trying to find a way to get back to the top, the Wolverines accomplished that feat twice, winning the national championship in 1996 and 1998. Watching its Big Ten foe succeed year in and year out has helped Minnesota see what it takes to get back to that level.
“I look at Michigan as kind of a measuring stick,” Lucia said. “If you want to compete for a national championship, you have to be better than Michigan. Over the last 10 years, (Michigan) has been the most dominant program in college hockey. They know what it takes to get the job done at this time of year.”
If Minnesota’s measuring stick is comparing itself to Michigan, it grew by leaps and bounds on Nov. 23 at Yost Ice Arena in the annual College Hockey Showcase. The then-No. 1 ranked Golden Gophers smacked around the Wolverines like a schoolyard bully, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first seven minutes and cruising to a 5-2 victory. Lucia said that he has not focused on that game in preparation for tonight’s national semifinal, as Michigan has improved dramatically in many ways since the teams’ initial matchup.
But Berenson remembers the problems that his team had with the Golden Gophers very vividly, as his Wolverines were forced onto their heels before they could even find a rhythm.
“This is going to be a skating game,” Berenson said. “We’re going to have to be able to keep up with these guys. They skate like the wind, and we can’t be a step hesitant.”
Fear of attacking early has been absent in Michigan’s game in its current six-game winning streak, as the Wolverines have scored the first goal in each of those victories.
Coming out strong and playing with desperation in the early part of the game will be crucial to Michigan’s chances in tonight’s contest because of the home-ice advantage that Minnesota will hold. The Wolverines will take a dose of the medicine that propelled them to the Frozen Four, as the Xcel Energy Center will be packed with thousands of screaming Minnesota fans who are desperate for the school’s fourth national title.
The Golden Gophers have played in the Xcel Energy Center numerous times, and Lucia is convinced that having his players in familiar surroundings will help calm the nerves that will inevitably come.
“We’re the only team in the Frozen Four where no players have been there before,” Lucia said. “We have played in that facility, and it will take tension away from our guys.”
“It’s their tournament to lose,” Berenson said. “They’re playing at home, and they may as well be the No. 1 seed as far as we’re concerned. They’ve got all these All-Americans and all-stars. We’re going in as a huge underdog.”