For the past few months, a panel of college hockey journalists has been working hard to pick the best men's players and coaches in Western Collegiate Hockey Association history, decade by decade, starting in the 1950s and working their way to the present.
The Minnesota Gophers were members of the WCHA until 2013 when the Big Ten began sponsoring hockey as a conference sport, and won 28 combined WCHA titles in the regular season and playoffs.
Last week, the team of the 1970s was named, and some heads turned when the Gophers program, despite winning a trio of NCAA titles in the decade (1974, 1976 and 1979) landed only one player — defenseman Bill Baker — on the honorable mention list. But one day later, the respect for all the Gophers had accomplished in the ‘70s became apparent when legendary coach Herb Brooks, who recruited and directed those three national title teams, was named the WCHA Coach of the Decade.
With Brooks’ legendary post-U of M accomplishments on his resume, most notably leading Team USA to their miraculous 1980 Olympic gold medal and later starting the St. Cloud State program, his accomplishments with the Gophers sometimes get overshadowed. But the three NCAA titles were the first of the five total won by the program, and nine men who played for Brooks at Minnesota made up the nucleus of the Miracle on Ice team, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest sports moments in American history.
Rob McClanahan, who played for Brooks both with the Gophers and on the 1980 team, recalls a strict, demanding task-master who skated his teams hard in practice. And in an era where having multiple 30-goal scorers on a team was not uncommon, offense was a secondary concern in Brooks’ system. McClanahan feels the lack of Gophers on the list of top WCHA players in the ‘70s is actually a testament to the coach.
“Herbie knew how to put a group of players together and find success,” said McClanahan, now in his second full season as head coach at The Blake School in Minneapolis. “And Herbie’s foundation wasn’t offensive, even though he was a forward as a player, Herbie’s foundation was much more disciplined. I think he was uncomfortable with teams that scored a lot of goals.”
Originally from St. Paul, Brooks was a prep star at Johnson High School where he won a state title in 1955 and then played for the Gophers until 1959. He was famously the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team, which went on to win the nation’s first hockey gold medal in Squaw Valley, California.
Post-1980, he coached in the NHL with the Rangers, North Stars, Devils and Penguins, and spent one season at St. Cloud State, fostering the program’s move to the Division I level. He also coached the French Olympic team at the 1998 Winter Games in Japan and coached Team USA one more time, in 2002, earning a silver medal in Salt Lake City.
Just a few months later, in August 2002, Brooks was killed in a one-car accident near Forest Lake, Minn. He was 66. St. Cloud State’s arena (Herb Brooks National Hockey Center) bears his name and a statue of Brooks celebrating his team’s defeat of the Soviet Union team in 1980 stands outside Xcel Energy Center in his hometown and outside SCSU's arena.
6-woman 2021 recruiting class for Frost
A six-pack of new faces will call Ridder Arena their home rink next fall, after Gophers women's coach Brad Frost announced his incoming players who will be freshmen for the 2021-22 season. They are Emma Conner, Peyton Hemp, Ella Huber, Sadie Lindsay, Skylar Vetter and Emily Zumwinkle.
Conner, a forward from Edina, was a key cog in the Hornets’ run to the Class AA state title game last season.
Hemp, a forward from Andover, was all-state, all-metro and all-conference selection for the Huskies en route to their 2020 state championship.
Huber, a forward from Northfield, Ill., plays for the Chicago Mission program and won gold with Team USA at the 2020 U-18 World Championships.
Lindsay, a forward from Breck, has been a part of three consecutive state title teams for the Mustangs and has earned all-state honors.
Vetter, a goalie from Lakeville North, plays for the boys hockey team there and was also a member of Team USA en route to that 2020 U-18 World Championships gold.
Zumwinkle, a defender from Breck, will follow in the skates of older sister Grace, who is a senior forward for the Gophers currently. Emily has been an all-state and all-conference honoree for the Mustangs.
- Rinkytown blog: Gophers men & women sit atop the national polls for the first time since 2014
- Rinkytown blog: Gophers defense trio bringing WJC gold medals home from Canada
- Rinkytown blog: Gophers land top USA Hockey defenseman
“We are thrilled to have these players joining our program next season,” Frost said, in a statement released by the school. “They all bring unique gifts and abilities to our team and they will have great careers here at the University of Minnesota. On top of being great hockey players, they are wonderful people and will fit in with who we are and what we are about.”
Gophers setting records at reading, writing and wrist shots
While some students have struggled with distance learning, as most teaching is being done via Zoom and not in-person as we continue to battle COVID-19 world-wide, the student-athletes who skate for the Gophers seem to be thriving in this most unique educational environment.
Over the 2020 fall semester, the Gophers in all sports combined to set a school record for their cumulative grade-point average, with a 3.41 mark. That was even higher than the then-record 3.36 GPA recorded in the spring semester of 2020. On the men’s hockey team, the cumulative GPA was 3.46, which was second-best in school history, trailing only the 3.64 they turned in for the 2020 spring semester.
A quartet of Gophers — Cullen Munson, Mason Nevers, Sampo Ranta and Sam Rossini — were named to the Dean's List for the fall semester with Nevers, a freshman forward from Edina, posting a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Lucia vs. Gwozdecky showdown looms
Brooks was rightfully named the WCHA’s coach of the ‘70s, and North Dakota’s John “Gino” Gasparini (with three NCAA titles in the decade) is a near shoo-in for coach of the ‘80s when those awards are handed out. But looking ahead a few weeks, the WCHA’s coach of the 2000s is going to be a tight race.
The ballots have already likely been cast, and the winner is yet to be revealed. It almost surely will either be Minnesota’s Don Lucia or Denver’s George Gwozdecky, and we do not envy the folks that had to pick between those two. From 2000-09, both men won a pair of NCAA titles (Lucia in 2002 and 2003, Gwozdecky in 2004 and 2005). Both men won two WCHA regular season titles (Minnesota in 2006 and 2007, Denver in 2002 and 2005). Both men won three WCHA tournament titles (Lucia in 2003, 2004 and 2007, Gwozdecky in 2002, 2005 and 2008).
Perhaps the only separation between the two comes in the NCAA tournament. Where Gwozdecky led the Pioneers to the NCAA tournament five times, and to the Frozen Four twice, Lucia has an edge with eight NCAA tournament trips, and three Frozen Four appearances.
Gwozdecky left Denver when his contract was not renewed at the end of the 2012-13 season. He is currently head coach at Valor Christian High School in suburban Denver and was named Colorado’s Coach of the Year in 2019. Lucia retired from coaching at the end of the 2017-18 season and has recently been named commissioner of the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association.