MINNEAPOLIS — For one week anyway, the center of the college hockey universe is located on Southeast Fourth Street in Minneapolis, which is where you will find 3M Arena at Mariucci and Ridder Arena.
With the release of Monday’s national college hockey polls, the Minnesota Gophers men’s and women’s teams simultaneously sit at their respective pinnacles for the first time since October 2014.
It was an expected result for Brad Frost’s women’s team, which was No. 2 last week behind arch-rival Wisconsin. With the Badgers losing once last weekend, and the Gophers (8-1-0 overall and in the WCHA) beating St. Cloud State three times in four nights, the top spot goes to Minnesota, heading into a weekend showdown with the Badgers in Madison. UMD maintained its position at No. 6 in the USCHO poll.
On the men’s side, Bob Motzko’s club suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday, but bounced back to split at Wisconsin and is 11-1-0 overall heading into a weekend two-gamer with Notre Dame in Minneapolis. Boston College, which had been ranked No. 2, split a home-and-home series with New Hampshire last weekend, falling to third in the USCHO poll. North Dakota, which is on a five-game winning streak, moved into the No. 2 slot in the USCHO poll.
Other teams from the region in the poll include St. Cloud State, which jumped two spots to No. 4 and got one first place vote after a sweep at UMD last weekend. Minnesota State is No. 5 with a 5-1-1 record and the Bulldogs fell to No. 7 after those two losses at the hands of the Huskies.
The USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll was similar, with the Gophers on top, North Dakota second, Minnesota State fourth, St. Cloud State fifth and UMD falling to eighth.
Last week, Motzko talked about the mutual respect and friendship between the Gophers men’s and women’s programs, even though the pandemic has limited their opportunities to get together in person this season. In previous years, both teams have gathered on the field at TCF Bank Stadium and been put into co-ed teams for a series of fun competitions. Even though the student-athletes are tested for COVID-19 six times weekly, they are not allowed to attend each other’s games currently.
“So far, knock on wood, we want to have a great reputation of being gentlemen and being team players with other sports on campus. We do share the same weight room and (the relationship was) really gaining ground,” Motzko said on Thursday, Jan. 7, prior to the first Gophers women’s game versus SCSU. “They play today and we’d be there, but we can’t. The doors are open both ways, and the things we did as a group last year were a lot of fun.”
Fund to save Fogerty still growing
It’s a long way to go to meet their lofty GoFundMe goal of $500,000, but as of this week the on-going fundraising effort to help Fogerty Arena in Blaine deal with its pandemic-related losses is chugging along.
After the folks at SotaStickCo.com raised more than $2,000 via t-shirt sales and other private citizens pitched in, the fund had collected more than $90,000 as of Monday, Jan. 11. Arena staff noted that it cost around $100,000 to keep the building open in December despite no ice time being rented due to the statewide shutdown order and they estimate losses of around $700,000 in 2020.
With kids back on the ice, and the generosity of hockey people donating to the fund, perhaps some light at the end of the pandemic can be seen.
Schmidt’s road to the Gophers’ roster involved luck and timing
Now in his third season as the Gophers’ head coach, Motzko and his staff still find remnants of the Don Lucia era around the office from time to time. One of those leftovers led to the newest addition to the team’s roster early in the new year.
When he was winning a state title for Wayzata and earning a spot as a Mr. Hockey finalist in 2018, Colin Schmidt had committed to play for Lucia and company, but ended up instead going to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., after a few stints in junior hockey.
Due to that initial commitment to the U of M, Schmidt’s name was in a database in the school’s compliance office. Over the summer, someone from compliance contacted the hockey office to see if they still had plans to bring Schmidt into the hockey program, and informed Motzko that Schmidt was no longer at Union (he played 32 games for the Dutchmen last season) and had enrolled in the U of M’s prestigious Carlson School of Management.
Motzko called Rick Bennett, the Union coach that led the Dutchmen to a win over Lucia’s Gophers in the 2014 national title game, and learned that Schmidt had left the school, wanting to go to college closer to home. With the Gophers down to 13 healthy forwards after Noah Weber had back surgery that will keep him out of uniform this season, the coaches were looking for some depth.
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Having heard good things from Bennett, Motzko called Schmidt on Christmas Eve and asked if the player would like to join the Gophers for the rest of the 2020-21 season. Schmidt initially asked Motzko for a few days to think about it, then called the coach two hours later to say, “I’m in.” On Dec. 26, Schmidt’s name appeared in the NCAA’s official transfer portal, and the Gophers announced his addition to the roster on Jan. 2.
“He hasn’t played in half a year, so he’s catching up, learning the systems and skating every day,” Motzko said. “The first day he showed up to practice, I said, ‘Guys, we’ve got a new player here,’ and the guys let out a huge cheer.”
Schmidt is officially a sophomore, although under the NCAA’s rules adjustments due to the pandemic, this season will not count eligibility-wise. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Schmidt has been a healthy scratch for the four Gophers’ games for which he has been eligible.
Future World Juniors in Minnesota?
By the time the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships are next held in the United States, in 2025, it will be two decades since World Junior games were last played in Minnesota, and more than 40 years since the only time Minnesota was the official host.
In 2005, Thief River Falls was the secondary site of the tournament, won by a Sidney Crosby-led Team Canada over an Alex Ovechkin-led Team Russia in Grand Forks, N.D., where Ralph Engelstad Arena was the primary site.
Minnesota’s only time as the primary host of the tournament was 1982, the first time it was held in the United States, with games being played all over the state, from International Falls to New Ulm and everywhere in between. Canada won its first WJC gold medal that year, via a tie with Czechoslovakia in the finale (the title was based on points and goals), played at Graham Arena in Rochester.
The event, which includes 10 national teams and more than 30 games, has grown to the point where an NHL-sized rink is required as the primary site. Earlier this month in Edmonton, the games were played in the Oilers’ home rink, which was empty due to the pandemic, but sellout crowds have been the norm elsewhere. If a local bid is made, Xcel Energy Center would seem to be a natural primary venue in the Twin Cities, with 3M Arena at Mariucci and Ridder Arena available as secondary hosts.
The last two times the tournament has been in the United States, in 2011 and 2018, Buffalo, N.Y., was the host city. Other American cities, including Tampa, have made strong bids, although USA Hockey has seemingly favored places like Grand Forks and Buffalo, which are close to the Canadian border and a natural influx of Canadian ticket-buyers. Detroit and Seattle would seem to be good potential future American hosts, with their new NHL buildings and their proximity to our hockey-crazy neighbors to the north.
In the wake of Team USA’s thrilling gold medal in Edmonton last week, the Minnesotan clothing company, based in White Bear Lake, started a kind of Twitter petition for the State of Hockey to bid on the next two American host opportunities, in 2025 and 2030, garnering more than 300 re-Tweets and another 300-plus likes.