Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Through turbulence to a title: Gophers' road to the top of the Big Ten

The road to the Minnesota Gophers' fifth Big Ten title was filled with bumps and broken bones and unexpected goodbyes. And after weeks of off-ice changes, the team emerged with a trophy on the ice before a huge crowd roaring its approval.

Wisconsin vs Minnesota
Members of the Minnesota Gophers held the Big Ten regular season champions trophy aloft before a noisy audience at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis after a 8-0 win over Wisconsin on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.
Matt Krohn / University of Minnesota Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS — It was perhaps the perfect personification of a good news/bad news moment for the Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team on the night of Saturday, Jan. 8.

The good news is they were packing up to leave Michigan State’s Munn Ice Arena after their first Big Ten road sweep of the season, and had moved into first place in the conference. After a sometimes uncharacteristically shaky first half of the season, goalie Jack LaFontaine was back to his Mike Richter Award-winning form from 10 months previously. With a nonconference series versus struggling Alaska on the horizon, it seemed that all was well in Gopherland.

But in the dark skies above East Lansing, Mich., that night, there may have been ominous clouds building – the kind which cause turbulence and can bounce planes full of hockey players around when they are on a journey. Jaxon Nelson was leaving the rink on crutches, one foot in a walking boot after breaking his ankle in the first game of the series. And before departing the rink, LaFontaine returned from a very serious conversation with former Spartans goalie Jason Muzzatti – now the goalie coach for the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes – that would ultimately change the course of the Gophers season.

Twin Cities turbulence

Gophers coach Bob Motzko admits that he used to get nervous on planes, and that turbulence would cause his stomach to do flips. But a pilot friend explained that turbulence, while uncomfortable, does not have any serious impact on the safety of passengers and crew. As long as you can hear the engines roaring, the flight is on track and the people on board are progressing.

So as much consternation as the turbulence that was about to hit the Gophers caused among the fan base, it did little to hinder the program’s progress toward a fifth Big Ten title in the past nine seasons.


Nelson, a junior center and the team’s biggest physical presence, was out. He would miss the next 13 games while his ankle healed. And after they returned from East Lansing, by around noon the next day, the team’s roster would have a notable change.

Jack LaFontaine warms up
Former Minnesota Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine made his NHL debut with the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, playing the final 15 minutes of his team's eventual 6-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Raleigh, N.C. Jaylynn Nash / Carolina Hurricanes
Jaylynn Nash / Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes, short on goalies due to injuries and the pandemic, signed LaFontaine on that Sunday, Jan. 9. Motzko and the remaining Gophers had nothing but praise for the opportunity their now-former goalie had and the coach said his “what’s next” conversation about goaltending with assistant coaches Garrett Raboin, Ben Gordon and Brennan Poderzay lasted less than two minutes. No different than if he had been lost for the season due to an injury, LaFontaine’s time as a Gopher was done, and the reins were being handed to Justen Close.

International intrigue

Three Gophers – defenseman Brock Faber, forward Matthew Knies and forward Chaz Lucius – had traveled to western Canada in late December to skate for Team USA at the 2022 World Juniors. It lasted all of one game before the tournament was canceled due to concerns about the pandemic. That was the same reason that Plan A for the Winter Olympics — to have NHLers play for their counties in China — was scrapped, and a collegian-laden lineup was Plan B.

Motzko, who had coached on several World Juniors teams in the past and is well-respected by USA Hockey, declared publicly that his roster was open, and American coach David Quinn could have any Gophers he needed in Beijing. While the official roster announcement was not made until the middle of January, it became clear that Faber, Knies and Gophers co-captain Ben Meyers would be heading to China and would likely miss six games in February.

Minn.Ness.Faber.Meyers.Knies (1).JPG
Minnesota Gophers men's hockey players Aaron Ness, Brock Faber, Ben Meyers and Matthew Knies showed off their school colors while skating for Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympics at the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing, China.
Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

This news, on top of the losses of Nelson and LaFontaine, created a perception and even a panic among some that the Gophers were running out of bodies. Raboin, who played for and coached with Motzko at St. Cloud State, and followed his mentor to Minneapolis in 2018, took to the locker room’s whiteboard to provide a message of hope and calm amid the personnel storms.

“We have all that we need,” Raboin wrote for all the players to see. His message was clear: all of the necessary elements to win hockey games, win trophies, win titles, were already in place. Motzko, wanting to reinforce his oft-repeated mantra that there are no passengers on his teams, added a few more words to Raboin’s message: “And we need all that we have.”

Anxiety and additions

Just a few hours before the Jan. 14 home game versus Alaska, Gophers sports information guru Brian Deutsch added to the team’s official roster and line chart. The team warmed up that night with a tall kid in orange goalie pads taking shots, as Owen Bartoszkiewicz joined the Gophers six months or so earlier than planned, effectively called up from his USHL team in Ohio to give the roster three goalies.

With Close making his first collegiate starts, the Gophers beat Alaska on Friday but lost Saturday, in the classic “hot goalie” game where Nanooks puck-stopper Gustavs Grigals had 36 saves. It was just the sixth win of the season for Alaska at the time (they added seven more after that) and a costly blow for the Gophers in the Pairwise rankings, which lean heavily on strength of schedule to determine the 16-team NCAA tournament field.


Notre Dame vs Minnesota
Minnesota goaltender Justen Close turned aside a Notre Dame shot in the second period of a 5-1 Gophers win over the Irish on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2022 at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Ind.
Brad Rempel / University of Minnesota Athletics

Close played well in both games, but the loss to Alaska dropped the Gophers to 12th in the computer ranking, which is on the fence between who gets in and who does not. For some cynical fans, the notion that the season would slip away without LaFontaine was happening quickly.

Motzko, determined to find additional depth, made a call to a name from the past who — thanks to the NCAA’s allowance of an extra year due to the pandemic — still had a few months of college eligibility remaining.

Sam Rossini had graduated from the U of M the previous May after playing parts of four years for the Gophers. A big body, he was primarily a defenseman but could be used at forward as well. He had been working a desk job as a financial planner and had been skating with friends outdoors a few days a week. Suddenly, with his old team in need, he was back at the school taking graduate classes and skating with the Gophers, slowly getting back into shape.

Stretch-run success

Michigan headed home from Minneapolis, bound for Ann Arbor on the evening of Jan. 22 with a trophy in hand. The Gophers and Wolverines had split a series in Michigan in early December. In the late January rematch at 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minnesota prevailed 2-1 in overtime on Friday before falling 4-1 in the series finale. That gave the Wolverines seven out of the 12 Big Ten points up for grabs in their season series (despite splitting the four games) and Michigan team officials loudly insisted that the Mariucci-Renfrew Trophy was coming back to the Mitten.

The following weekend, the Gophers won in regulation, then lost in overtime at Notre Dame with the “Niners” line of Lucius, Knies and Meyers leading the way offensively. The Saturday night loss was the last game they would play with the three Olympians, who were expected to miss the next three series. There was a general feeling that if the Gophers could win three of those six games, they could survive the stretch as a viable NCAA tournament team.

The not-so-secret weapon they had was a freshman class that was no longer playing like wide-eyed rookies. Forwards Aaron Huglen, Tristan Broz, Rhett Pitlick and Lucius were quickly emerging offensively and contributing much-needed solid shifts whenever called upon. The Gophers swept Big Ten doormat Michigan State in Minneapolis, then headed to Ohio State to face the conference’s surprise team.

Minnesota forward Rhett Pitlick reached for a loose puck while Ohio State goalie Jakub Dobes made a save during the Gophers' 5-1 win over the Buckeyes on Saturday, February 12, 2022 at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Kirk Irwin / Ohio State Athletics

In a series-opening 3-2 win versus the Buckeyes, they got goals from Lucius, Broz and Huglen, with Pitlick assisting on two of them. The next day, on Ohio State’s senior night, the Gophers won 5-1 behind solid goaltending from Close. Unexpectedly, the undersized goalie from small town Saskatchewan was putting up better numbers than LaFontaine had pre-departure, and just like that the Gophers had put themselves solidly back in the “secure NCAA invite” picture, and into contention for their first Big Ten regular season title under Motzko.


All hands on deck

Even on a charter plane, it is a long trip to Penn State. And things had never gone well for Motzko there. His teams were 0-3-1 inside the Nittany Lions’ rink with two more potential trips there canceled due to the pandemic. And their series at Penn State on Feb. 18-19 did not look to have notably high odds for success. The Lions were not contenders for the Big Ten title, but they remained one of the most dangerous home teams in college hockey with their propensity to shoot from anywhere and everywhere, at all times.

Upon landing at the small airport outside State College, Pa., they got good news for the future. Sometime while the Gophers were in-flight, highly-touted recruit Logan Cooley put a post on Instagram with nothing but the cartoon face of Goldy Gopher, indicating that the forward projected by some to go first or second overall in the 2022 NHL Draft will be skating in maroon and gold next season.

The immediate future was much more of a challenge. The Gophers would play their series opener versus the Nittany Lions with a severely depleted lineup. The Olympics were over for Team USA, but Faber, Knies and Meyers were still en route back to the states – a 40-hour travel ordeal that spanned 15 time zones. Defenseman Ben Brinkman was serving a one-game suspension. Nelson was still out, and at the last minute, Lucius was scratched.

Minnesota captain Sammy Walker fought off a challenge from Penn State's Adam Pilewicz during the Gophers' 6-4 win over the Nittany Lions on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022 at Pegula Ice Arena in State College, Pa.
Heather Weikel / The Rink Live

Rossini and rarely-used Matt Denman were on the line chart as defensemen. Colin Schmidt, who the Gophers found last season taking classes at the U of M and out of hockey after playing one season at Union, was in the lineup as a forward. A few hours drive from the historic Gettysburg battlefield, a rag-tag group of soldiers from the North would try to hold off wave after wave of attackers while waiting for reinforcements to arrive.

Rising to the occasion, both Rossini and Schmidt chipped in with assists as the Gophers won 3-1, running their winning streak to five games. Late that night, the Olympians arrived in State College, and while Knies could not play in the series finale, Faber skated a regular shift on defense and Meyers had three assists as the Gophers dug out of a 3-0 hole to win 6-4. With two games to play, they were solidly in the hunt for the conference crown, but they needed help.

Irish assistance

A year earlier, Wisconsin had won its first Big Ten title since the conference was instituted in 2013 thanks to some math. With games canceled due to the pandemic, the conference regular season title was determined by winning percentage, and not by points percentage, as other conferences did. That meant in the final accounting, Wisconsin (.729) finished .002 ahead of Minnesota (.727) and hung a banner. If the conference had gone by points percentage, the banner would have hung in Minneapolis.

None of the Gophers mentioned that heading into the final weekend of this regular season. The focus was solely on taking care of their own business and beating the Badgers twice, then watching the scoreboard for help from Indiana. Michigan entered the final weekend leading the Gophers in the standings, and finished with a pair at Notre Dame.

Wisconsin vs Minnesota
Minnesota forward Bryce Brodzinski worked the puck past Wisconsin defender Anthony Kehrer in the first period between the Badgers and Gophers on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Matt Krohn / University of Minnesota Athletics

On the final Friday of the regular season, the Gophers upheld their end of the deal, beating Wisconsin (which was backstopped by former Gophers goalie Jared Moe) 5-0 as Close earned his first collegiate shutout. Meanwhile in South Bend, the Fighting Irish posted a 4-1 win over Michigan, meaning that Minnesota controlled its own destiny with 60 minutes of hockey to play.


Blowout for a banner

The ending, as so often happens, lacked drama. On the final night of the regular season, Michigan lost again, so the Big Ten title was Gophers’ property long before their 8-0 pasting of that team in cardinal and white was done. The crowd — the largest of the regular season by a long shot — roared its approval, almost drowning out the pep band’s stirring rendition of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," played after home sweeps.

A prep state champion as a sophomore, Begley spent parts of the last two seasons in the NAHL, most recently with the Wisconsin Windigo where he was the team's top-scoring defenseman.
Starting next season, men's and women's season-ticket holders for the Minnesota Gophers will be able to return seats they cannot use and get credit for future season ticket purchases.
The defenseman originally from southern California was a four-year regular on the U of M blue line, and a first-round pick of Buffalo in 2019.
Transfers from St. Lawrence, Princeton and UMD will help bolster the Gophers on the back end next season as they try to find a way back to the Frozen Four and repeat as WCHA tourney champs.
The Minnesota Gophers center led the team in scoring on the way to a Big Ten title and a trip to the NCAA title game, and recently announced he will return for a sophomore college hockey season.
Fargo native Trent Wiemken has gone 8-1-1 in the Robertson Cup playoffs as the mainstay goalie for the Austin Bruins playoffs while working with former Minnesota Gophers goalie Nick Lehr's coaching.
The former Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner is coming off a senior campaign where he notched career highs in goals and points while playing right wing on the Gophers' second line much of the season.
When the vote to build a new Arizona Coyotes rink in Tempe failed, a big piece of their future decided that NHL hockey can wait another year, and Logan Cooley announced his return to the U of M.
After leading the Minnesota Gophers in all offensive categories as a freshman, the talented center from Pittsburgh will hold off on signing a pro contract and make another run at a NCAA title.
After coming to the U of M as a walk-on in 2019, Justen Close became the team's mainstay in goal in January 2022 and has backstopped two Big Ten titles and two Frozen Four trips.
The Minnesota Gophers' biggest body and top faceoff man scored his career-best 10th goal of the 2022-23 season in the second period of the NCAA title game in Tampa,
Murphy grew up in an Illinois family with two brothers who have played college sports, a mother who played college softball and a dad who was a Marine. She won gold last month with Team USA

Standing near the penalty box after the handshakes were concluded and the Badgers had left the stage, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle handed the Big Ten champions trophy to co-captain Sammy Walker and that massive crowd roared once again. A banner had been earned in the face of myriad challenges. One could imagine this was just the scene Coyle pictured — a huge crowd in full throat as a championship trophy is carried around the rink — on a Sunday in March 2018. On that day, barely 12 hours after top-seeded St. Cloud State had been upset by Air Force in the NCAA playoffs, Coyle waited until noon to text Motzko to see if the Huskies coach would be interested in coming to Minneapolis for a job interview.

Wisconsin vs Minnesota
Minnesota Gophers co-captain Sammy Walker was all smiles after being handed the Big Ten regular season champion trophy by U of M athletic director Mark Coyle (left) and senior associate athletic director Tom McGinnis (left) following an 8-0 win over Wisconsin on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Matt Krohn / University of Minnesota Athletics

Motzko was low key in the postgame interviews, taking a moment to praise his team, then focusing his gaze ahead to the next challenge — the playoffs, and chances to hang banners for the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament.

But for a moment, there were cheers and hugs and celebratory t-shirts to be handed out in Minneapolis. Inside the rink, the cheers of the lingering crowd could still be heard, like the roar of jet engines keeping a plane on course, and sailing through any turbulence that comes along.

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.
What to read next
A fixture in the Motor City for decades, college hockey's most renowned holiday tournament seems to have found a home in Grand Rapids, Mich., with the announcement of the next four GLI fields.
Todd Inkrott and new Badgers hockey coach Mike Hastings had worked together for more than a decade at MSU Mankato. He becomes the latest former Mavs staffer to follow the coach east.
"We are excited to bring Nick and his family to the University of Wisconsin," head coach Mike Hastings said.
Paul Kirtland was a Mavericks assistant under former head coach Mike Hastings. He leaves the MSU program to return to his alma mater after Luke Strand was named the Mavs' head coach in April.
Get Local