By Jess Myers
MINNEAPOLIS — It’s not unusual for the Minnesota Gophers to find a successful change of pace and better results when they switch quarterbacks. It’s rare for this to happen at the team’s hockey rink, rather than on the other side of Oak Street at the football stadium.
When a hockey team is on the power play, the defenseman who controls the offense from the blue line is generally the on-ice equivalent of the quarterback. They hold the puck, survey what the defense is doing, move to open up lanes to the net, then can shoot or decide which teammate should receive a pass in the best position to score.
During the Gophers’ 20-day break around the holidays, Minnesota coach Bob Motzko was looking for a spark, and made a bold move. He took senior Tommy Novak — a forward all his life — and relocated him to the blue line when the Gophers are on the power play.
Successful test in St. Cloud
For those who have followed Motzko’s career, it was a move not completely without precedent. In 2013 when he was at St. Cloud State, Motzko moved forward Drew LeBlanc to the blue line when the Huskies were on the power play. The results included the school’s first WCHA title, their first Frozen Four trip, and LeBlanc becoming the school’s first Hobey Baker Award winner.
After six weeks of having Novak on the blue line, the coach says the only mistake was timing.
“Having done it before, I was comfortable,” Motzko said. His team’s power play is now the best in the Big Ten (31.2 percent), and in the top five nationally (27 percent). “I’m actually kicking myself because I was talking about it at Thanksgiving. Why it took me until Christmas … I was sleeping for a month and didn’t try it earlier.”
Novak is from River Falls, Wis., but commuted across the St. Croix River to play high school hockey at St. Thomas Academy, where he earned a pair of Minnesota state titles. He also earned a reputation as a tremendous puck mover who didn’t shoot often enough. His high school coaches had a theory about why: when you’re that good at handling the puck, why give it up by throwing it at the net?
“The way he handled the puck, Tommy would probably be among our top three all-time stickhandlers,” said St. Thomas Academy co-head coach Greg Vannelli. “When guys are as good as he is with handling and moving the puck, it’s more challenging and interesting to keep doing those things.”
Recruited to the U of M by Don Lucia, the former coach said the Gophers toyed with the idea of moving Novak to the power play blue line last season, hoping to take advantage of his skills and his calm demeanor.
“Tommy’s always been a passer and every coach he’s ever had has probably wanted him to shoot more, because he has a good shot,” Lucia said. “But his strength has always been his ability to see the ice. He’s got tremendous vision, he’s a great passer.
“Sometimes he over-passes at times instead of shooting. But the way that power play is set up now, with him developing some confidence up top, they’ve done a really effective job. When he’s got the puck, he can move it so many different ways.”
Freezing the Wolverines
On Friday night against Michigan, the Gophers were looking for a quick start at home. Less than five minutes into the game, with a Wolverine in the penalty box, Novak caught a pass just inside the blue line and wound up for a slap shot. The Michigan defender guarding him dropped to a knee to block Novak’s forthcoming shot.
Instead, Novak slid the puck to his right, where Rem Pitlick waited. With the defender down, unable to cover Pitlick, the junior forward unleashed a one-time slap shot that hit the back of the Michigan net for a 1-0 lead.
“Everyone has their strengths as a player. His strength is so much his mind and his passing,” Pitlick said, describing the goal. “He had a fake slap shot and was already thinking a step ahead because he froze everyone, so it’s easier for me. All the credit to him.”
Novak, who didn’t recall ever taking on the power play quarterback role, welcomed the challenge when coaches approached him about it in December.
“I was pretty excited. I think that fits my skill set pretty well,” said Novak, a third round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2015. “We toyed with the idea last year, with the old coaching staff. I was kind of excited and kind of nervous at the same time, so it’s worked out pretty well.”
As if to refute the notion that he won’t shoot the puck, Novak took a power-play pass from Brannon McManus in the third period of Saturday’s game with Michigan and popped a shot in that was the eventual game-winner. It was his third goal of the season, and maybe the start of a new approach to the position for him.
“I tend to try to look for too many passes maybe. So I’m trying to get more pucks on net and I realize my shot is probably not as bad as a lot of people think,” said Novak, who has 59 shots in 27 games. “Once I get a hold of it, I can shoot it pretty well. So I’m getting a little bit of confidence back and I can feel my shot start to improve.”
With that, Novak said thank you and headed out of the rink. Across the street, snow was falling on the seats and benches of TCF Bank Stadium, with football season still six months away.
But the Gophers’ hottest quarterback will be on the ice at Penn State this weekend, just itching for the Nittany Lions to take a penalty.