Gophers open Big Ten play at arch-rival Wisconsin
MINNEAPOLIS -- Making new friends is part of the adventure when you start a new job. For Gophers hockey coach Bob Motzko, now a month into his new role at Minnesota, making new enemies will be important as well.
It’s been more than five years since Motzko last stood behind the visitors’ bench at the Kohl Center and coached a team versus Wisconsin, back in the waning days of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association when his St. Cloud State team shared a conference with the Badgers. In his first five weekends with the 1-3-1 Gophers, Motzko has faced three teams he knew well from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and in-state rivalries. That changes this weekend in Madison, as the Big Ten season opens abruptly.
“For me this is totally foreign territory. It really is. Our five games are all against teams I know well,” said Motzko, who has never before matched up head-to-head versus Badgers coach Tony Granato. “And Tony’s new. He’s been there three years, so they’ve got to get used to us too.”
The Badgers have played .500 hockey in Granato’s two-plus seasons at the helm of his alma mater and sit at 4-4-0 overall, having dropped two games last weekend at North Dakota. A former NHL player and coach, Granato said in the preseason that he expected to have a gritty team, as opposed to a high-skilled group. That reputation was bolstered when sophomore forward Linus Weissbach suffered a hand injury in practice on the Monday before Halloween.
Weissbach, who is expected to miss another two weeks or more, had eight points in his first six games, and leaves an offensive hole in the Badger lineup. With that in mind, Granato hopes to play slower-tempo games against the Gophers.
“They’re highly-skilled. I think they’ve got a lot of individual talent up front and that’s going to be something that we’ll have to pay attention to,” said Granato, who is 3-5-0 in his career vs. Minnesota. “You know they can skate, you know their 'D' will try to get involved in the play, so offensively they’re going to try to open it up for sure. We’re going to have to be really disciplined in the way we play and not allow them to get into a wide-open, end-to-end game.”
Games with the Badgers, who also moved from the WCHA to the Big Ten in 2013, have been the one constant for Gophers fans in all of the upheaval created via college hockey’s massive realignment five years ago. For the players, these games are a sure-fire way to get excited.
“The red team’s always a good team to play against and over there in the Kohl Center, they pack the building pretty well, so it should be a good weekend,” said Gophers defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf.
Having already played road games before unfriendly audiences in Duluth and Mankato, and a neutral site contest in Las Vegas that was a de facto home game for North Dakota, the Gophers are well-versed in the rude welcome they’re sure to get in Madison.
“I love it. I think it’s a great atmosphere,” Gophers captain Tyler Sheehy said. “Obviously, the students are the ones who are pretty rowdy, banging on the glass and yelling at you, maybe not the nicest things. But I get into the game from that and, hopefully, the other guys feed off that too.”
Surely, getting together with long-time enemies is always nice.