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Rinkytown blog: U of M regents approve plan to shrink 3M Arena at Mariucci ice surface

It has been talked about for a long time, and now the end of the big ice sheet at the Gophers' home rink is really going to happen. Also: a former Gopher is honored by USA Hockey, and a quartet will captain the Gophers women next season.

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Before a sellout crowd of 10,000, Michigan Tech won the first game played at the new Mariucci Arena, beating the Gophers 5-4 on October 15, 1993. Courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS – Recently, the Olympic-size ice sheet took another step toward the dusty shelf of college hockey history where it will someday reside next to Cooperalls, one-piece Pro-Tec helmets and the once-coveted Christian Brothers aluminum hockey stick.

Years of talk about shrinking the massive ice sheet inside 3M Arena at Mariucci became official University of Minnesota policy at a June meeting of the school’s board of regents, which approved $14 million for a plan which will upgrade the ice plant that is used for the arena and for adjoining Ridder Arena. Included in the funding request were detailed plans to shrink the ice sheet from its current dimensions (200 feet long by 100 feet wide) and add some “on the glass” seating.

The project, which is expected to happen a year from now, will leave the Gophers men with an ice sheet that is larger than standard NHL size (200’ x 85’) and will likely be a hybrid closer to 200’ x 92’. The renovations will also change the radius of the corners of the rink, which are currently close to square, to make them more gradual.

Prior to the Miracle on Ice, there wasn't a single Olympic-sized ice sheet in college hockey. In the two decades that followed, 19 college hockey rinks opened and more than half of them (10) were either full Olympic-sized or Olympic hybrids-within five feet.

Much like playing in the thin air in places like Colorado gets in the heads of some visiting players, the huge ice sheet in Minneapolis has been a point of discussion for visitors since the 10,000-seat rink opened in 1993. Michigan coach Mel Pearson has always stressed the risk of his defenders straying too far away from their own net with 15 extra feet of zone to defend in Minnesota.

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Gophers coach Bob Motzko, who also coached on an Olympic-size ice sheet at the National Hockey Center when he was the head coach at St. Cloud State, has always downplayed the difference the rink dimensions make in the actual playing of the game. But he has been acknowledging for several years that changes would be coming to the Gophers’ home ice.

“There will be a day when we shrink our rink. But I don’t think it’s as big a deal,” Motzko said in an interview with The Rink Live at the 2019 Minnesota State Fair. “We’re still going to be a great skating program and we have a little extra width out there, but it will happen and I think it will enhance the fan experience too. It will be a little tighter, a little more physical and it will be great for hockey.”

The larger ice sheets commonly seen in Europe were a kind of college hockey fad three decades ago when the replacement for the old Mariucci Arena was being designed. Along with the Gophers and SCSU, the arenas used by Wisconsin, Alaska Anchorage, Minnesota State Mankato and others were either built with Olympic-size ice or reconfigured to expand their playing surface. There was a thought that the extra space would lead to a faster and more wide-open brand of hockey that amplified skill. That idea had its detractors right from the start.

Gophers hockey legend Lou Nanne told The Rink Live that the U of M has the best rink in college hockey, with one exception.

Three of the five biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history -- judged by the difference in Pairwise Ranking -- have been St. Cloud State losses in the last four years.

“It’s phenomenal, I just didn’t like the ice surface. Never have, never will. Way too big, and I’ve always thought that was a big mistake,” said Nanne, who was the Gophers’ captain in 1963, and has had a son and two grandsons play in the program. “It magnifies mistakes. You’ve got to be a really good team to play effectively on a big ice surface, with passing. But more than that it takes away your checking ability. You have to wait for somebody to hit them because they’re so far away.”

The move to bigger ice surfaces is a trend that has gone away, and the term “Olympic size” is a misnomer these days, as the hockey at the 2022 Winter Olympics in China was played on a NHL-size ice sheet.

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Originally from Minneapolis, Pat Westrum skated for the Gophers between 1967 and 1970. He was honored by USA Hockey in 2022 for his life-long volunteer work in youth hockey.
Contributed / University of Minnesota Athletics

Former Gopher Westrum honored by USA Hockey

For Minneapolis native Pat Westrum, college hockey ended long before anyone had heard of Watergate, when the memories of Woodstock were still fresh for most Americans. But he never left the game that has been an important part of his life.

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Westrum, a long-time coach in the Twin Cities suburbs, was honored for that life-long devotion to the sport by American hockey’s national governing body this week.

At a banquet in Denver on Friday, June 10, Westrum was given USA Hockey’s Walter Yaciuk Award, which is presented annually “to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the organization's coaching education program during many years of service as a volunteer.”

While at one time the trend in coaching was to yell and scream and be a strict disciplinarian, Westrum, now 74, learned the game on the neighborhood rinks in Minneapolis and always has believed that a more free-form and fun version of the game is what gets kids interested and keeps them involved.

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“For me, it was bringing the playground back to the kids ... because that's what I grew up with,” Westrum said in a release distributed by USA Hockey. “The kids don't have that anymore. Everything is so, so structured.”

Westrum skated for the Gophers from 1967 to 1970 and is currently coach-in-chief for Minnesota District 6. He has served the USA Hockey Coaching Education Program since 1995, has been an amateur scout for NHL teams and played for the U.S. Men's National Team and in the World Hockey Association. His son Erik skated for the Gophers in the late 1990s and early 2000s for both Doug Woog and Don Lucia, and is now the head coach at Holy Family Catholic .

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Minnesota goalie Skylar Vetter and Maggie Nicholson (14) watch the puck as Taylor Heise collects it during a game against St. Thomas on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 in Mendota Heights.
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Gophers women name a quartet of captains

In what has got to be a first for the program, helped along by one player returning from an Olympic year and use of the extra “COVID year” of NCAA eligibility, the Gophers women’s hockey team will have four fifth-year seniors as captains next season.

In late May, coach Brad Frost announced that Abigail Boreen, Taylor Heise, Gracie Ostertag, and Grace Zumwinkle will all wear the ‘C’ for the first time in their careers for the 2022-23 season.

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“We are very happy to announce that Grace, Taylor, Gracie and Abigail will be our captains,” said Frost, in a statement released by the school. “They are all exceptional hockey players, but more importantly, they are great people and leaders. They all bring unique personalities, styles, perspectives and experiences that will benefit our team this coming year.”

Hockey Media Day
Grace Zumwinkle

Zumwinkle will be back in maroon and gold after bringing a silver medal home from China, where she skated for Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics last February.

Heise, who was an assistant captain for the 2021-22 season, became Minnesota’s third-ever Patty Kazmaier Award winner – given to the top college women’s hockey players in the nation – while leading the nation in points.

Ostertag was also an assistant captain last season. The defender scored a career-high four goals, including three on the power-play, before suffering a season-ending injury after 14 games.

Boreen had a breakout senior season in 2021-22, finishing third in the nation and second on the Gophers with 59 points on her way to being named All-WCHA Second Team and WCHA All-Tournament Team.

The Gophers return 20 players from last year's team, which won the WCHA regular season title and spent much of 2022 ranked atop the national polls before being upset in the NCAA quarterfinals.

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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