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That perch atop the national college hockey polls is a lonely, fleeting place this season

Last weekend, St. Cloud State became the latest top-ranked college hockey team to learn its lofty perch was temporary at best. But many coaches say the polls are the least of their concern.

University of Minnesota forward Jaxon Nelson (24) looks to shot on St. Cloud State goalie Jaxon Castor (40) as Huskies defenseman Dylan Anhorn (4) looks on during a nonconference men's hockey game on Jan. 8, 2023, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Jim Rosvold / The Rink Live

MINNEAPOLIS – The two weekly Division I college hockey polls begin ranking the nation’s top 20 teams in September, before any of them have actually played a game. That fact alone should be an indication of how seriously they should be taken in the grand scheme of a season that stretches from the pennant races of one baseball season, well past the ceremonial first pitches to start the next baseball season.

Still, the press releases pop into your inbox every week, noting which traditional powerhouse is ranked atop the polls and which upstart once-great program has cracked the top 20 for the first time in a long time.

College hockey coaches, as a general rule, don’t care. Most of them are loath to even talk about the polls.

“We’re really, really concerned about that,” Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko said recently – his voice dripping with obvious sarcasm – when asked about the likelihood that his team would return to the nation’s top ranking after a sweep of Michigan State.

They did, and with a bye week following the sweep of the Spartans, the Gophers will almost certainly stay on top for another weekend, which has not always been the case this season.


The Gophers took over the top spot after in-state rival St. Cloud State had ascended to the top ranking in late January. The Huskies stayed there just one week, losing a pair at Minnesota Duluth five days after the poll came out.

Huskies coach Brett Larson was not at all surprised by the push back they got from the Bulldogs, and the extra incentive some opponents have to prove themselves versus the team that is sitting atop the polls.

“When you’re the No. 1 team in the country, you know you're going to get every other team's best punch. They're gunning for you,” Larson said this week. “I think you saw that in Duluth last weekend. They probably played one of their best weekends of the year and, unfortunately for us, we had arguably one of our worst games of the year on Friday night. That's a bad combo. When you do have that No. 1 label, everyone is coming for you.”

The polls, of course, carry no real weight. We’re more than a decade removed from the days when the weekly national football poll – not a playoff – determined the eventual national champion. The only poll that matters in the long run is the computer rankings like the Pairwise, which determine the 16-team NCAA field.

In fact, while they will certainly hang banners for winning regular season and playoff conference crowns, some coaches consider anything that happens prior to St. Patrick’s Day to be nothing but noise on the way to the ultimate goal: winning four NCAA tournament games and bringing home the big prize.

And that attitude is not new. Legendary Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer, who led the Badgers to a pair of NCAA titles, was renowned for treating the regular season like little more than a tune-up for the national tournament. Late in the 1991-92 season, Doug Woog’s Gophers split a series in Madison, all but putting the WCHA regular season title out of reach for Wisconsin.

As he heads to a fifth NCAA Frozen Four as a coach or assistant, Bob Motzko will draw on lessons learned earlier this season about avoiding "vacation mode" when they get to Florida.
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“Minnesota can have all the MacNaughton Cups they want,” Sauer said after the series concluded, mentioning the trophy that at the time went to the conference’s regular season champ. “We just want to be in it for the big one at the end.”

Indeed, while the Gophers hung a banner for their WCHA regular season title that year, then went one-and-done in the NCAA playoffs, the Badgers made a push in March, reaching the Frozen Four in Albany, N.Y., and beating Michigan in the national semifinals before falling to Lake Superior State in a close, controversial national title game.


So February begins with the Gophers back on top of the polls. They were there previously, in November, only to promptly lose at home to Penn State, which led to a six-week run at the top for defending national champion Denver. Some Gophers fans will surely revel in the idea that theirs is the country’s top hockey team, but their coach, honestly, does not care.

As he walked out of the interview room on that Saturday following a sweep, Motzko offered a nod to Sauer and many other successful coaches before him, offering some true feelings.

“We want to be ranked No. 1 at the end of April,” he said. “That’s our only concern.”

The Rink Live's Mick Hatten contributed to this report.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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