B1G Notebook: Title game talent, atmosphere good for Michigan's major junior recruiting battles
Packed arena, band playing and two talented teams battling for a banner will underscore the special nature of college hockey on Saturday when Michigan visits Minnesota for the Big Ten tourney title.
MINNEAPOLIS – It is a long way from the State of Hockey to the nearest Canadian major junior team. The Western Hockey League’s Winnipeg Ice (who are rumored to be relocating at season’s end) are based more than two hours from northern Minnesota talent hotbeds like Warroad and Roseau, and six hours or more from the Twin Cities. So while there are Minnesota kids who forgo their college hockey eligibility in favor of the Canadian leagues, those are still the very rare cases.
College hockey programs in the state of Michigan face much closer major junior competition for players. The Ontario Hockey League has two teams (Saginaw and Flint) in the state and three more (Sault Ste. Marie, Sarnia and Windsor) in Canada, but just across the border from towns in Michigan.
So Michigan interim head coach Brandon Naurato always looks forward to showing a whole bunch of potential future Wolverines what college hockey is all about. Even if that means having to go on the road to face top-ranked Minnesota for the Big Ten tournament title on Saturday, with a national TV audience watching two talented teams play before a raucous sold-out audience of 10,000-plus.
“It's awesome for the Big Ten. It’s awesome for Minnesota. It's awesome for Michigan college hockey,” Naurato said. “College hockey is fighting major junior and vice versa for decades about what the best path is. I think these guys are showing that it's great to come to college and worry about more things than just hockey and grow up as young men and mature.”
While the major junior teams sell themselves as a quicker route to the NHL, and offer a stipend that can be used for education if a player does not sign a pro contract, many college hockey recruiters stress an education as a route to a good life after hockey, as well as a more immediate future in pro hockey, if that interests a young player.
Of note, seven players from the Wolverines win over the Gophers in the 2022 Big Ten tournament title game have played in the NHL since then: Minnesota’s Ben Meyers (Avalanche) and Sammy Walker (Wild) and Michigan’s Kent Johnson (Blue Jackets), Nick Blankenburg (Blue Jackets), Owen Power (Sabres), Thomas Bordeleau (Sharks) and Matty Beniers (Kraken).
One last skate on the big sheet
By Monday there will be a construction crew in Minneapolis tearing up the floor of 3M Arena at Mariucci and revamping the ice sheet for the first time in 30 years (the building opened in the summer of 1993. That means Saturday’s Big Ten title game will be the last played there on an Olympic size sheet of ice, which measures 100 feet wide by 200 feet long.
Starting next October, the Gophers will play on a surface that is roughly eight to 10 feet narrower, measuring somewhere between 92 x 200 and 89 x 200. This is still wider than the standard NHL size sheet which is 85 x 200. Those are the dimensions next door at Ridder Arena, which is where the Gophers men practice prior to playing road games on NHL-size rinks.
The Gophers’ home rink was built at a time when bigger ice sheets were a trend, and many thought that giving players extra space would lead to a more skilled, less physical European style of hockey. In the end, big ice sheets were a trend that faded, and the Gophers managed to play an up-tempo brand of the game no matter how much space they were allotted. But the extra space on the rink became a psychological home ice advantage, similar to the high altitude at Colorado College – a convenient factor to include in the equation after the loss.
For his part, Gophers coach Bob Motzko has always said that the size of the rink matters little to him, although he admitted on Thursday that he feels the Gophers play better on a smaller surface. For the defenders who have to man those extra-long blue lines, bigger ice has been challenging.
“Turn the page on all the history on that ice sheet,” said Gophers captain Brock Faber. “It’s obviously bittersweet but it’s cool that we’re the last team that gets to play a game on that sheet. Playing on the NHL sheet, shots are more dangerous and there’s less room for the forwards to play out in the corners. So I don’t mind the NHL sheet.”
Former Michigan coach Mel Pearson used to talk about warning his defenders to be aware of their location when protecting their own goalie, as the extra ice led teams to stray too far from their own crease.
Spartans leading scorer to return
A career-best senior season from Swiss forward Nicolas Muller was one of the reasons for the start of Michigan State’s on-ice resurgence. Now it seems the senior forward is having too much fun to call it a college career just yet.
On Thursday the Spartans announced that Muller will return for his fifth season of eligibility, after having led the team offensively with nine goals and 25 assists for 34 points.
“We are very excited that Nico has decided to return to our program for another year,” said MSU head coach Adam Nightingale, in a statement released by the school. “His selfless approach and unique work ethic will help continue our program’s upward trajectory. He worked incredibly hard to have a breakout season, and helped us build the foundation for the success we would like to have year-over-year at Michigan State. We feel super fortunate that Nico wants to be a part of our next steps forward.“
Muller, who will be 24 next season, came to East Lansing via junior hockey for Modo in Sweden and has played for Switzerland at a pair of World Junior Championships (2018 and 2019). He did his best 2022-23 work late in the season for the Spartans, recording 14 points over his last 11 games, including two goals and three assists in the quarterfinal series win at Notre Dame.