Motzko-led Gophers attempt to end skid vs. national champion UMD
DULUTH — Earlier this week, new Minnesota coach Bob Motzko questioned whether Minnesota vs. Minnesota Duluth was still a rivalry.
The former St. Cloud State coach meant no disrespect to UMD. He knows it's a very, very big deal when the Bulldogs and Golden Gophers get together, but when one program has won eight straight vs. the other like UMD has against Minnesota over the past four seasons, is it still, indeed, a rivalry?
"I get there are big rivalries in-state. I've been a part of it on the bench, I've been a part of it on the opposite bench," said Motzko, who spent the previous 13 seasons with the Huskies. "But I've always said, 'Rivalry means both teams win.' It's not a rivalry if you're not beating each other."
Back in March on the final night of the 2017-18 regular season, the Bulldogs and Gophers found themselves separated by just one ten-thousandth of a percentage point — .0001 — but when the puck is dropped on the 2018-19 season at 7:07 p.m. Saturday at Amsoil Arena, the two schools will seem as far apart as the 150-mile stretch of Interstate 35 that divides them.
Minnesota, which hosts Game 2 of the season-opening nonconference series at 7 p.m. Sunday at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, was edged by UMD in the Pairwise for the final NCAA tournament spot last spring thanks to a Ratings Percentage Index tiebreaker. The result was coach Don Lucia "agreeing to the terms of surrender" — in the words of Air Force coach and Coleraine native Frank Serratore — after 19 seasons and Motzko returning to the place he and Lucia led to back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003.
UMD, meanwhile, took that .0001 of a percentage-point advantage and turned it into the program's second NCAA title of the decade after winning its first in 2011. The 2018 championship banner will be raised to the rafters in a pregame ceremony tonight.
Asked if he gets any added satisfaction raising a banner while the Gophers watch, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin's response was simple and to the point Wednesday.
"Absolutely," he said. "Yeah, I do."
Much has been made in recent years about the "decline" of the Gophers, specifically in comparison to their in-state rivals — UMD, St. Cloud, Minnesota State-Mankato and Bemidji State.
Motzko doesn't agree with that assessment, however. The program he served as an assistant coach from 2001-05 has not fallen behind. The rest of the State of Hockey has just caught up with better facilities and smarter recruiting.
"It has taken a lot of hard work from a lot of great people to build these programs to where they are," Motzko said. "And we're the one that, on our side of it, we better acknowledge there are a lot of people who want to win, there are a lot of people who want to be successful in this region, and they're doing it."
Motzko is of the belief that conference realignment has helped everyone succeed. The wounds from the breakup of the WCHA and CCHA are healing, he said.
That's especially true in Minnesota. While not all of college hockey has benefited from the changes that went into effect after the 2012-13 season, this state's five programs have, and greatly.
Four of the five teams have won a regular-season conference title in the previous five years — the only school to win an NCAA title, UMD, is the lone outsider — and four of the five programs have appeared in the national tournament in at least three of the past five years. Only Bemidji State has been shut out of an NCAA tourney berth.
Four of the five also start this season ranked in the USCHO.com preseason top 15. The Bulldogs sit at the top, the Huskies are No. 6, the Mavericks are 10th and the Gophers 13th. The Beavers are unranked.
"Now when you do an autopsy and look back on it, there was so much scrutiny five years ago when it started," Motzko said. "Now we can actually breathe and look at it and see what teams were building and go, 'OK, things are working.' Now take care of your own program and build your programs up. We're going to be set for good hockey in the region."
After failing to win the Big Ten for the first time in five seasons a year ago, and missing the NCAA tournament for just the second time in seven seasons, Sandelin said he expects the Gophers to be rejuvenated this time around with a new voice at the top. But it will take some time to get there. Motzko needs to get a feel for the puzzle pieces before him, Sandelin said.
That's been tough for everyone in college hockey, with coaches being limited to just four hours of on-ice time with players for the last month. The first official day of the season — when teams can not only begin to play games, but practice in full — is today.
On top of that, a late departure meant Motzko didn't fill out his coaching staff until this week when it was announced International Falls native Ben Gordon was hired as an assistant.
"We're behind, though, right now for natural reasons," Motzko said. "New staff, but we're going to catch up, too. This is a survival weekend and the next month. We have to keep building, keep moving this thing up."