Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Know Your Enemy: Minnesota

Our final "new" addition to the Know Your Enemy rolls this year is a program that is among the most respected in the entire nation from a school that's one of the major players in the college athletic scene by virtue of their association with one of the oldest and most respected conferences out there - yet had to wait 20 years for their first national championship in part because of a plucky group of engineering students from a small school in upstate New York.

Nickname: Golden Gophers
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Founded: 1851
Conference: Big Ten
National Championships: 5 (1974, 1976, 1979, 2002, 2003)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2012
Coach: Don Lucia (15th year)
2012-13 Record: 26-9-5 (16-7-5 WCHA, 1st place)
Series: Minnesota leads, 9-2-0
First Game: March 12, 1953 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Last RPI win: December 10, 1988 (Minneapolis, MN)
Last Minnesota win: October 12, 2007 (St. Paul, MN)

2013-14 game: January 4, 2014 (Minneapolis, MN - possible)

Key players: F Nate Condon, sr.; D Justin Holl, sr.; D Jake Parenteau, sr.; F Tom Serratore, sr.; F Seth Ambroz, jr.; F Travis Boyd, jr.; F Christian Isackson, jr.; D Ben Marshall, jr.; F Kyle Rau, jr.; F Sam Warning, jr.; D Mike Reilly, so.; D Brady Skjei, so.; G Adam Wilcox, so.; D Mike Brodzinski, fr.; F Taylor Cammarata, fr.; F Hudson Fasching, fr.; D Tommy Vannelli, fr.

They don't call Minnesota the "state of hockey" for nothing. 182 Minnesotans played college hockey last season - including three at RPI among 22 in the ECAC. Given the state's size relative to other states with a high number of varsity college programs, the five D-I teams in Minnesota (with an additional 10 Division III programs) are pretty substantial, especially considering that all but one of those five have been to the Frozen Four in the last five seasons.

And when it comes to the "state of hockey," there's one school that certainly commands the majority of attention, and that's the Gophers. While they can no longer brag the state's only national championships following the 2011 triumph of Minnesota-Duluth, the five that they have ranks them among the most in the country.

How solid a program is Minnesota? Well, consider this: the last class to graduate without making even a single NCAA appearance was the Class of 1970. 15 classes since then never missed the tournament. They're regulars, and the program's history of regular success even predates the NCAA tournament's inception.

Varsity hockey at the "U" dates back to 1922, when a team under I.D. MacDonald put together a 6-3-1 record that included four victories over the school's arch-rivals from Wisconsin. Unlike many other schools, Minnesota continued to field a hockey program throughout the Great Depression and through World War II as well. The school claims a pre-NCAA national championship from 1929 (shared with Yale) and won the national AAU championship in Lake Placid in 1940 as part of an 18-0-0 season.

Minnesota's first eight seasons were above .500, and the program suffered just five losing seasons from its inception to 1951, when the team joined the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League, an early attempt at a college hockey conference today considered a forerunner of the WCHA. It was around that time that John Mariucci, who had captained the 1940 squad and played in the NHL, would start the team on the road to becoming NCAA titans as head coach of the Gophers for 13 seasons - though the ultimate national glories would elude him.

In his first season as coach in 1953, Mariucci led Minnesota to a 23-win season, shattering the school record of 18 and bringing the Gophers to the NCAA tournament for the first time, eking out a victory over an RPI team also making its first NCAA apperance, winning 3-2 before falling 7-3 to Michigan in the national championship.

The next season, a second straight 23-win campaign, Minnesota again returned to the Frozen Four and the national championship game, falling short once again as RPI pulled off a shocking 5-4 win in overtime thanks to Gordie Peterkin's game-winning goal.

Mariucci coached the US Olympic team to a silver medal in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy in 1956 (with a team stocked with Minnesotans) and helped establish Minnesota as one of the top western teams, but left the program in 1966, having played an immense role in the development of hockey both in Minnesota and on the national level but without having claimed a national championship.

The program struggled under Mariucci's replacement, Glen Sonmor (who maintained a long connection with the Gophers as a radio analyst until 2011), though he did bring Minnesota its first WCHA regular-season crown in 1970, and helped produce a Cinderella run through the WCHA playoffs and into the NCAA tournament in 1971 that saw the Gophers fall 4-2 in the national championship game to Boston University despite having an overall losing record.

Herb Brooks became Minnesota's head coach in 1973, building upon Mariucci's legacy by propelling the Gophers to the regular league hardware and NCAA appearances they're known for today. In just his second season as head coach, Brooks guided Minnesota to its first national championship as the first of three straight national championship games between the "U" and WCHA rivals Michigan Tech, winning 4-2 in Boston. The Huskies gained revenge in the 1974 championship, 6-1, but Minnesota earned its second crown in 1975 with a 6-4 win over MTU.

Minnesota was again at the intersection of Olympic glory in 1979, when Brooks' third national championship (4-3 over North Dakota) made him the top candidate to coach the 1980 US Olympic team, a team which needs little in the way of introduction. Nine Gophers were on that team, including Mike Ramsey and Rob McClanahan, starters against the Soviet Union.

The 1980s and 1990s featured a solid amount of league domination by Minnesota under coaches Brad Buetow and Doug Woog, but no more national championships despite six WCHA regular season titles, three playoff titles, 16 NCAA bids (including 13 in a row from 1985 to 1997) and eight Frozen Four appearances. The closest the Golden Gophers came during these two decades to wearing the crown were in 1981 under Buetow, a 6-3 loss to hated Wisconsin in the national championship, and in 1989 under Woog, as a team still considered one of the greatest in Minnesota history fell 4-3 in overtime to Harvard.

In 1999, after a second straight losing season that followed 20 winning seasons in a row, Woog stepped down as head coach. Minnesota hired Colorado College head coach Don Lucia, who had guided the Tigers to five straight NCAA appearances and two Frozen Fours, and under Lucia the ship was righted fairly quickly. Lucia's first eight seasons were of the 20-win variety, one of the more basic measures of success for a program as accomplished as Minnesota. In 2002, just his third season behind the bench, Lucia guided the Gophers to their first national championship since 1979, and a year later made the Gophers the first team to win back-to-back crowns since Boston University in 1971 and 1972.

Since then, there's been a lot of success for the "U" - 4 WCHA regular season championships and 2 more Frozen Fours - but the ultimate goal, one the team seems to start every year with a better-than-average shot at achieving, has been elusive.

One unique feature about the Gopher program is its tradition of recruiting either all or almost all native Minnesotans to the team. Last year's team had just four players not from the Land of 10,000 lakes, and as recently as 2008 the Gophers boasted an all-Minnesota roster. The program's tradition of recruiting the top players in the state is credited with helping to fuel the rise of the state's high school league as the best in the nation. For years, the Minnesota-only policy was in full effect, started by Mariucci and adhered to especially under Woog.

Perhaps not ironically, Minnesota's 2002 national championship, their first in almost a quarter-century, was won on an overtime goal scored by Grant Potulny, a North Dakota native who was the first non-Minnesotan to play for the Gophers in 15 years. Today, non-Minnesotans dot the roster, but the vast majority of Gopher players are still from Minnesota, frequently chosen from among the top high school players in the state.

This year marks the beginning of a new era for Minnesota, as they split from the WCHA for the first time since its inception to join the new Big Ten hockey conference, in correlation with their school-wide affiliation.

Minnesota is not a guaranteed opponent for the Engineers as it had been originally thought when it was first announced that RPI would play in the Mariucci Classic for the first time. Instead, fellow ECAC squad Colgate will draw the Golden Gophers in the first round. With the Raiders as the other potential opponent in the tournament, RPI stalwarts would probably prefer to get a game with the hometown team, since there are already other opportunities to see RPI and Colgate do battle this year (and any year).

Following the Gophers' upset loss in the NCAA tournament at the hands of a Yale team that would go on to win the national championship, the team experienced an outright exodus of underclassmen signing NHL contracts, losing five would-be seniors and taking a big bite out of the team's experience levels after a mostly-successful season last year with just one senior seeing any ice time at all. Now, four of the team's top five scorers from last year are gone with each leaving eligibility on the table.

But there's always talent at Minnesota, even in down years, and this probably isn't even likely to be a down year. 10 NHL draft picks remain from last year's squad, and more will join them in the fall. Wilcox had a tremendous freshman season that saw him put down a GAA of 1.88, Rau returns after scoring 40 points last year (and despite rumors that he'd join the rush to the exit). Condon, Warning, Ambroz, and Marshall all had at least eight goals each last year. Every freshman class at Minnesota has a number of blue-chip talents, and frequently freshmen are among the top players on the team.

It adds up to a team with few holes, but if the Engineers face off with the Golden Gophers, there will be at least a few in the lineup during the first weekend of 2014. Since the tournament falls during the World Junior Championships (held this season in Sweden), there's practically a certainty that the Gophers will be without some of their top younger players - Skjei, Cammarata, Vannelli, and Fasching have all been invited to the annual WJC prep camp in Lake Placid. They're also going to be missing their head coach - Don Lucia will be the head coach of Team USA in Sweden.

A matchup with Minnesota, regardless of who's not playing, would be another big test for an RPI team with big dreams this year. The Mariucci Classic games represent the Engineers' only experience with Olympic-sized ice before potential games in Lake Placid in March, and if they face the Gophers, that'll be something to be overcome - not to mention the 10,000 seat arena that should be almost full (students will be gone for winter break). It adds up to yet another difficult challenge for RPI, but like the Denver series, it would be a building block experience heading into the meat of the ECAC schedule in January and February.

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