Renowned for leadership on a NCAA title team, John Pohl named to Gophers' M Club Hall of Fame
Two decades after his off-ice leadership and on-ice scoring prowess helped the Minnesota Gophers claim the 2002 NCAA title, former Red Wing star John Pohl becomes the second member of his household to be honored by the U of M Athletic Department.
MINNEAPOLIS — In many Minnesota households, being selected to your college’s athletic hall of fame would be a crowning career achievement. In the home that John Pohl and Krissy Wendell-Pohl share with their three daughters, it was a pretty average Monday when the announcement came that John, the Minnesota Gophers captain on their 2002 NCAA title team, has been named to the school’s M Club Hall of Fame.
Krissy – a prep, college and Olympic star – was given that honor nearly 10 years ago, as is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as well.
“I joke with people that if there’s a hall of fame, she’s already in it,” John said. “So this is a special thing for our family to understand that not just mom gets to be in halls of fame. Other people can too.”
Small town roots
Now 43, Pohl retired from hockey more than a decade ago after 115 NHL games. He is the athletic director at Hill-Murray High School, and was watching boys and girls soccer practice while chatting with The Rink Live. He came to the Gophers in 1998 for Doug Woog’s final season as their head coach after winning a state prep title at Red Wing, in what he admits was a different era for high school sports.
“Mark Zuckerberg would not be a billionaire if he was born 20 years earlier. Timing is everything. I feel like I just got so lucky to go through high school and college when there were no cell phones and the only thing to do on a Friday night was to go to a hockey game and see all your friends,” Pohl said. “I wasn’t worried at 15 about where I’d get drafted in the USHL or what my skating coach thought of my diet. It was pure and it was fun and without cell phones and the Internet, it was small town America and everyone would go to the games on a Friday night. We would play games where literally they would have to lock people out because the arena was at capacity. It was a really special time.”
In 28 games each season as a Red Wing sophomore, junior and senior, Pohl put up 99, 111 and 107 points respectively, and finished his time as a Winger by being named Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey. As a college freshman, Pohl’s game was average. Then Woog was dismissed, and Don Lucia was hired. It was considered by some a necessary reset for the Gophers program, and Pohl’s game flourished. He led the Gophers offensively as a sophomore and as a senior.
"I feel like I just got so lucky to go through high school and college when there were no cell phones and the only thing to do on a Friday night was to go to a hockey game and see all your friends."
“He enjoyed the game, which was a testament to how good he was. He put in a lot of extra work, and he was competitive. He had that nature that would push other guys to be better,” said former Gophers defenseman Paul Martin, now an assistant coach. He said the 2002 team with Pohl and Jordan Leopold as captains benefited greatly from their leadership “The culture shifted a lot with players like Johnny and Leo including the younger guys and letting us know how important it was for us to show up and how much we were needed. He was a good captain and a good leader that a lot of us looked up to.”
Bob Motzko joined the Gophers as an assistant coach at the start of that championship 2001-02 season and saw up close what Pohl’s leadership and work ethic meant.
“My goodness, what an incredible individual,” Motzko said. “He was a leader on a team that was just stocked with leaders. He’s a staple in athletics in the state of Minnesota, and one of the all-time great Gophers.”
Bringing it home
The 2002 NCAA Frozen Four was held at Xcel Energy Center, which was one of the NHL’s newest venues at the time. It had been more than two decades since the Gophers had won a NCAA hockey title, but Pohl said the general feeling was excitement and opportunity. They beat Michigan in the semifinals, setting up a winner-take-all showdown with Maine in the finale.
“I don’t think we felt pressure. We just looked at it as an incredible opportunity. It had been 23 years. None of us were born then. None of us had dads on the team, so it wasn’t pressure,” he said. “If there was any pressure, it’s because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in a Frozen Four and maybe a once-in-a-generation opportunity to play a Frozen Four in your hometown. So we got lucky and made the most out of it.”
They trailed Maine by a goal with less than 90 seconds to play, then Matt Koalska scored with the goalie pulled to force overtime. In the extra session, the Black Bears took a controversial penalty, and Grant Potulny’s power play goal put Minnesota back on top of the college hockey world. Now the head coach at Northern Michigan, Potulny said that the rally and the title were examples of lessons the team learned from Pohl.
“He was always in a good mood, but I don’t know anybody that worked harder. He never took a day off and was a great captain,” Potulny said. “Look at his production and the evolution of his game from a freshman to a senior. When I think of Johnny, I think about how he just wouldn’t give up.”
John and the other members of this year’s M Club Hall of Fame class will be officially honored at the Gophers’ Sept. 17 home football game versus Colorado. It is almost certain that Krissy (M Club Hall of Fame, class of 2013) will be by his side, with their children.
“I need Red Wing High School to start a hall of fame,” John joked. “That way I could say to the kids, ‘this is the hall of fame that dad’s in that there’s no way mom can get in.’”