MINNEAPOLIS — “Tony Granato is too young, dog-gonit!” Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko joked, when asked this week about the Wisconsin Badgers coach’s recent induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Revealed on Monday, the Class of 2020 for the USHHF, based in Eveleth, Minn., includes former UMD women’s hockey star Jenny Potter and three of Motzko’s coaching colleagues — Wisconsin’s Granato, Boston College’s Jerry York and retired North Dakota and Omaha coach Dean Blais.
The Gophers’ coach, who has been on the opposite bench from all three men — as recently as Feb. 1 of this year for a 4-2 win over Granato’s Badgers in Madison, Wis. — offered praise and congratulations, even to the U of M’s neighborhood rival in the Big Ten.
“Tony was a terrific college hockey player. One of the best ever at Wisconsin,” Motzko said. “I really like Tony, and he’s been a great addition to college hockey to have him at Wisconsin.”
Originally from suburban Chicago, Granato, 56, was a star for the Badgers in the 1980s, then spent more than 800 games in the NHL. He played on and later coached the U.S. Olympic team, and was a head coach with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche before returning to his alma mater in 2016 to coach the Badgers.
The 2020-21 season will be the 49th as a college hockey head coach for York, 75, who is one of two men to coach two different programs to NCAA hockey titles. He produced Bowling Green’s 1984 national title, and has won a quartet of Frozen Four titles at the helm of his alma mater, Boston College, where he has coached since 1995.
“He’s a legend. He’s been an inspiration to all of us coaches,” Moztko said of York. “Us young coaches, and I’ll call (myself) a young coach, have looked up to Jerry for a long time, and he’s still going strong.”
Originally from International Falls, Minn., where he lives today in retirement, Blais, 69, played for the Gophers in the early 1970s, then made his mark as a coach. Blais’ first high school head coaching job was in Minot, N.D., where he got the Magicians to the state tournament twice. He was an assistant coach on two of North Dakota’s national championship teams in the 1980s.
In 1990, Blais directed Roseau High School’s state title, and later moved back to the college ranks where he won a pair of NCAA titles as the head coach at North Dakota, in 1997 and 2000. After a stint as a NHL assistant coach in Columbus, Blais was named USHL Coach of the Year in 2009 for his work with the Fargo Force, then returned to the college ranks for eight seasons at Omaha, directing the Mavericks’ first (and so far, only) Frozen Four appearance in 2015.
“I’m very close with Dean Blais. He’s one of the all-time best and one of the best guys to hang out with and be around,” Motzko said, acknowledging Blais’ work with the U of M’s most long-standing neighborhood rival on the other side of the Red River. “He’s a Gopher grad, though he wore that green jersey and those green colors for a long time, but what a fabulous job.”
Potter, 41, is originally from Edina, Minn., and won a gold medal for Team USA at the 1998 Olympics in Japan. She skated for the Gophers for one season, then transferred to UMD and won the 2003 NCAA title with the Bulldogs. Potter skated in four Olympics for the Americans and is also a former college head coach, having spent parts of three seasons at Trinity College in Connecticut and one season running the Ohio State program.
In a normal year, the USHHF holds its formal induction ceremony in December. With the pandemic still on-going, the hall plans to conduct a joint ceremony for the Class of 2020 and the yet-to-be-named Class of 2021 sometime in December 2021 at a site to be determined. Information on visiting the museum in Eveleth can be found here: USHockeyHallMuseum.com
Teammates excited to see Ranta return
Just weeks after the college hockey season, and the U of M campus, were shut down due to the pandemic, Gophers junior forward Sampo Ranta pledged that he would return for another season. Ranta, a third-round pick by the Avalanche in 2018, is considered a very solid pro hockey prospect due to his size (6-2, 205 pounds officially) and scoring prowess (he was second on the team with a dozen goals last season), and there was ample talk that his sophomore season could be his last in a Gophers uniform.
Back home in his native Finland in March, Ranta told The Rink Live that he would be a Gopher again in 2020-21, and spent the summer skating (many Scandinavian rinks opened two months earlier than their Minnesota counterparts) and working out close to home, with many videos of his efforts to stay in shape posted on social media. Still, with the uncertainty surrounding the college hockey season and a brief move by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) to restrict student visas over the summer, there was joy and relief recently when Ranta actually walked in the 3M Arena at Mariucci locker room to resume his college hockey career.
“We saw him come in and hadn’t seen him in a long time. He’s looking better than he ever has, and you can tell he put in a lot of work over the summer,” said Gophers senior forward Brannon McManus of Ranta, “He’s going to have his best year ever. We’re definitely fortunate to have him come back.”
In addition to his work with the Gophers, Ranta played for Finland in the 2020 World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic over the holidays.
Common sense, not complaints, in dealing with COVID
If Motzko is unable to see what his team is doing on the ice during practice, blame the precautions that college hockey teams have had to make due to the pandemic. A glasses-wearer, Motzko is dealing with one notable challenge on the rink, but he isn’t complaining and has instructed his staff and players that whining is not allowed.
“Coaches have to wear a mask. That’s the tough adjustment to get used to. I fog up with glasses and I have to solve that,” Motzko said. “I know the term has been thrown out, ‘the new norm,’ but we’re all going to adjust to it. We’ve kind of made a thing that none of us are going to complain. Whatever is happening, we’re never going to complain. We’re just going to accept it, and when we get to our season, we’re ready to play.”
Most students at the U of M are moving back to campus this week. More gatherings are likely which raises the chances of the virus spreading as has happened at other colleges throughout the country. Motzko is stressing his players exhibit common sense and caution away from the rink as well.
“Just be smart,” Motzko said. “If you’re in a crowded indoor space with people you don’t know, without a mask on, you’re going to put yourself at risk. Be with people you know, keep your mask on, wash your hands, stick in a small group and make our bubble as tight as we can make it.”