MINNEAPOLIS — In the college hockey world, there are a few places where you just don’t want to be the visiting team. Grand Forks in the midst of a blizzard is one of them. Madison on Halloween weekend, if your hotel is anywhere near State Street, is another.
And if you are looking for points in the Big Ten standings, trailing in the third period being at Notre Dame is not a scenario where many visitors find success. Yet that is where the Minnesota Gophers found themselves on Feb. 15, trailing the Fighting Irish — one of the nation’s most renowned lock-down defensive teams — by a goal with less than 17 minutes remaining. But the Gophers caught a break.
An errant pass across the neutral zone by a Notre Dame freshman was intercepted by Gophers forward Brannon McManus, who had a mostly clear route to the Irish net. As he closed in on Irish goalie Cale Morris, McManus became aware of two things — an opponent impeding his route to the net, and (amid all the din in the sold out arena) a voice in his head. It was linemate Ben Meyers, indicating that he was open and available for a pass.
“I was going to shoot that puck. I was about to shoot that puck and then I saw the defender get his stick in there and I knew it probably wasn’t going to be a good shot,” McManus recalled. “I literally just heard a voice, either in the back of my head or in my left ear, and I knew it was Benny’s voice, and I kind of did something bold. It’s kind of that chemistry where you just know where each other is at.”
McManus’ “bold” move was a no-look, between-the-legs drop pass that caught the tape of Meyers’ stick between the circles. The freshman from Delano, Minn., ripped a shot past Morris’ blocker and into the upper left corner of the net to tie a game they would win via a power play goal a few minutes later.
It was one of 10 goals Meyers would score as a college hockey rookie, leading the Gophers’ 11 freshmen offensively and being named the team’s top newcomer. And it was typical of the chemistry that developed between McManus, then a junior, and Meyers, who is actually seven months older than his upperclassman linemate. He started college when he was almost 21 after two full seasons (post high school) with the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League.
When Gophers coach Bob Motzko took the job in March 2018, one of his first promises to the fanbase was that their roster would get older. Meyers, and his first-year success, typifies that “mature freshman” that the coach would prefer to recruit.
“A portion of our roster has to be a little older coming in, and Ben is a great example of that,” Motzko said. “He is one of the better players in college hockey, but he wouldn’t have gotten there without the path he took.”
Overall, the 2019-20 Gophers were young, and accordingly took their lumps in the first half of the season. From October through early December, Minnesota had a 14-game stretch where it went 2-8-4 versus nationally-ranked teams like Minnesota Duluth, Notre Dame, Penn State and North Dakota. But for Meyers, his maturity and his extra time in Fargo made the transition less daunting.
“After playing junior hockey, it wasn’t like the biggest deal," he said. "The USHL prepared me so well, but as a team overall, we were just inexperienced. Once everybody got 20 games under their belt, we were ready to roll.”
Back to the rink, gradually
They rolled in the second half, winning eight times in one 10-game stretch, and heading into the final game of the regular season with a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title. Then, after beating Notre Dame in a first round playoff series, it all came to an abrupt and unexpected end due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was tough to comprehend, because I didn’t think it was even possible that our season could be cancelled,” said Meyers, who went home to Delano, finished his freshman year online, and spent an unusually long time away from the rink. In early July, he was just getting reacquainted with the feel of ice beneath his skates.
“It’s been a lot of working out and not a lot of skating,” he said. “I just started back on the ice in June, which is the longest in my life I’ve gone without skating. I’ve just been shooting on goalies in Plymouth. No actual skating, just shooting.”
In the Force family
He also went back to his roots, accepting an invitation to return to Fargo in early July and help out on the ice during the Force tryout camp.
“It’s a funny experience, being behind the bench for the tryout camps,” Meyers said. “I did four of them on the ice, so to be coaching it now is kind of weird, but it’s also fun to see the talent they have coming in.”
For the Gophers, one key chunk of talent has arrived, and there is an expectation that Meyers’ stellar freshman season was just an appetizer.
“The great thing is he’s got a whole ‘nother level to hit,” Motzko said. “That’s what’s exciting about Ben. He teased us last year with where he’s going to take this thing.”