MINNEAPOLIS — Amazingly, on the 2020-21 Gophers roster, Blake McLaughlin is the only Minnesotan from north of the Twin Cities wearing the maroon and gold.
“Go back five or 10 years ago, it seemed like there were always two northern guys or more, and now I’m kind of on my own,” McLaughlin joked, saying that he and Jack Perbix, the two most avid outdoors lovers on the team, have tried to show the rest of the Gophers how you spend time off in the winter when you are from northern Minnesota. “I wanted us all to go ice fishing as a team, but I don’t think I have 26 pairs of bibs, boots, jackets and rods for everyone. Maybe if we get a few more northern guys, it will help me out a little bit.”
The program where “218” boys (named after the area code for everything north of Brainerd) like the Broten brothers and Aaron Ness (Roseau), Larry Olimb and Wyatt Smith (Warroad), Keith Ballard and Jon Waibel (Baudette), Pat Micheletti and Travis Weber (Hibbing), Robb Stauber and Dave Spehar (Duluth), Gino Guyer and Adam Hauser (Coleraine/Bovey) and Alex Goligoski and Jeff Nielsen (Grand Rapids) came to the big city to get an education and find on-ice stardom is now thoroughly dominated by Twin Citians
The current 28-man Gophers roster features McLaughlin from northern Minnesota, two from southern Minnesota (Jared Moe and Jaxon Nelson), two Canadians (Justen Close and Jack LaFontaine), two Californians (Brannon McManus and Ryan Johnson), one each from Finland, Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin, and 17 players from the Twin Cities metro area. For this story, we are counting Delano (Ben Meyers) and Elk River (Perbix) as suburban communities, even though they are on the fringe of the seven-county statistical area.
While non-metro Minnesota players have always been important to the Gophers program, recruiting in your own backyard is common and has generally been very successful. It is expected that North Dakota gets the best players from Greater Grand Forks, and that Twin Ports kids will naturally want to be Bulldogs. It is also common that some kids want to get away from home for college.
A generation ago, when the state’s Division I hockey scene consisted of the Gophers, the Bulldogs and a brand new program at St. Cloud State, there were fewer stay-at-home options for outstate Minnesota players. It is notable that in the 1980s, when Minnesota had just two D-I programs for much of the decade, the Bulldogs recruited 1984 Hobey Baker Award winner Tom Kurvers, from Bloomington, out of the Gophers’ backyard, while Doug Woog went to Duluth and grabbed Stauber, who won the Hobey for the U of M in 1988.
It speaks to the current state of college hockey in the region that Minnesota’s five (soon to be six) D-I programs, and North Dakota just over the Red River from the hockey hotbeds of northwestern Minnesota all seem to be keen on recruiting that starts at home. Minnesota Duluth’s roster has eight players from the Twin Ports or further north. St. Cloud State has seven who come from Central Minnesota or points north.
Notably, despite their metro-heavy roster, none of the Gophers coaches are originally from the Twin Cities. Head coach Bob Motzko is from Austin, while assistants Garret Raboin (Detroit Lakes) and Ben Gordon (International Falls) are from the 218. The state’s other four D-I coaches are all originally from northern Minnesota as well. Minnesota State’s Mike Hastings from Crookston, Minnesota Duluth’s Scott Sandelin is from Hibbing, Bemidji State’s Tom Serratore is from Coleraine and St. Cloud State’s Brett Larson is from Duluth.
And while recruiting is effectively on hold due to mandates from the NCAA as we navigate our way out of the pandemic, a look at the list of players that have committed to Motzko’s program for the future includes names from Roseau (Aaron Huglen), St. Cloud (Nate Warner) and another southern Minnesota star in Dodge County forward Brody Lamb.