Minnesota Meltdown

Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn, City Pages

The U is feeling the heat. While generations of Minnesota kids could only dream of wearing the iconic maroon and gold “M” jersey, on the ice the Gophers are just another Minnesota college hockey program.

Sure they are tied with Michigan (8-2) in the weak, six-team Big 10 and are above .500 for the season with a 13-12-0 record. But other issues are boiling under the surface.

  • 1-12 against Minnesota schools in their last 13 games
  • 21st in the pairwise

For the second straight season the Gophers finished last in the North State College Cup this past weekend. The tournament was created in the aftermath of the breakup of the old WCHA as a way to give Minnesota’s five Division I schools an opportunity to still compete against each other. Minnesota is a permanent part of the tournament, while the other three teams rotate which one is skipped. This season, Minnesota-Duluth is not participating.

This is embarrassing for a program that is used to gettting the pick of the litter of Minnesota prep talent. The College Hockey News published an article following the tournament loss.  “We have good programs in our state. We should embrace that, and give them credit too. They’re riding a good wave right now,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. As for the players? They cited that the Gophers were getting other Minnesota team’s ‘best game,’ they were not working hard enough, they blamed a bad Thursday practice, and mental fatigue.

Everything except the dog ate our homework.

And once sold out Mariucci Arena is now shows open seats – as if there are better things to do in the frozen north.

According to Minneapolis City Pages, What happened to the University of Minnesota hockey program?, the problems facing the Gophers are deep.

  • Hockey Brats – Watch these days, and you’ll witness less a team than a constellation of child stars. Some were signed to scholarships as young as age 15, coated with praise since their grade school days. It’s akin to building a football team where everyone fancies himself a star quarterback. That’s left no one to do the yeoman’s work of winning hockey. Another is more succinct: “They’re arrogant little jerks. They’ve been raised to be the kings of the land because they’re youth hockey players that are great. But they’re jerks. There’s no other way to put it.”
  • Poor Discipline – “They run around all over with no discipline,” says Gopher alum Kevin Hartzell. “They don’t do the little things that are the most important. Getting traffic inside the dots. Winning puck battles along the boards. Never getting beat up the ice so you don’t give up odd-man rushes. What we’ve seen this program become is a glorified high school team.”
  • Entitled – According to alumni who’ve soured on the program, Minnesota’s star system has bred self-admiration, stroked and infantilized by a culture that doesn’t prize selflessness and hard work. “You tell a 10th grader or even a ninth grader they’re going to be a Gopher, and for even the best of kids it’s going to be hard for them to think they’re not better than other people,” says one former player.

Most of the ‘complaints’ center around Coach Don Lucia. Lucia,  in his 17th season at Minnesota, ranks among Division I’s top 10 in career wins, including national titles in 2002 and 2003. Over the past four full seasons, the Gophers have had more wins than any other program. A record not entirely different than what was held by former Pioneer Coach George Gwozdecky when he was let go by DU.

  • Toughness – As many alums see it, a program built on Herb Brooks’ dictatorship of hard work and selflessness has deteriorated into a confederacy of excuses. Says one NHL scout, “You blow a two-goal lead with three minutes in your own barn against an average team, and it’s a freshman’s fault. It’s another example of how they’ve lowered their standards, and Lucia gets away with it, having an explanation for everything. It’s like because they were once good, they don’t have to work to be excellent now.”
  • Recruiting Youth – Because Minnesota gets the pick of top talent, they are signing top prospects early. Lucia has taken to signing players before they’re old enough to drive. The Gophers already have five commitments for the 2017-2018 season. Shattuck-St. Mary’s forward Scott Reedy announced his choice in 2014. He’d just turned 15. Luverne’s Jaxon Nelson also pledged to play for the Gophers. He may not see the Mariucci ice until 2018, yet he committed last April, weeks after his 15th birthday. Lucia was conscripted into the practice reluctantly, contending the Gophers either had to play or lose out. “It was a lot easier when you got to know the kids better,” he says. “You had a better sense of where they were in their development stage when they’re 17- and 18-year-olds rather than 15- and 16-year-olds.”
  • Character – “Character is huge,” he says one former player, “A team with no talent and character still goes farther than a team with all talent and no character.” That thesis was on display in 2014, when Union College pulled off hockey’s greatest upset since the Miracle on Ice against Minnesota, 14 NHL drafted players, when they knocked them out 7-4 at the NCAA’s.
  • Coaching – Veteran  program supporters have little faith in the culture and coaching.  “Zach Parise is exactly the kind of character guy you want representing your program,” says one alum. “And here you had Herb Brooks telling him he should go to North Dakota. When the godfather of Gopher hockey doesn’t trust Donnie Lucia, what does that tell you?”
  • Player Development – “If a kid is going to Minnesota,” says one NHL scout, “concerns are openly discussed in our rooms about how it might affect his development. If one of our players is heading to say, North Dakota or UMD or [Nebraska-Omaha], we are comfortable with them going to any of those places.” Other players — like Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler and Nick Leddy of the New York Islanders — have likewise blossomed after leaving. 
  • Alumni Relationship – “What makes the relationship between the head coach and alumni unique is many of us live in the Twin Cities and Minnesota, and still are involved with hockey, be it as youth coaches, junior hockey, whatever,” says a former player. “Ties to the local hockey community have helped make the program. But he couldn’t care less. When guys reached out, he blew them off. When there were alumni events, he barely popped his head in.”

On the other hand, could it be that a long-spoiled fan base is oblivious to the realities of parity?

“If you asked hockey fans to name the top five programs in college hockey, if you asked that 10 years ago, Minnesota would have been in that conversation,” Big Ten Network host Rick Pizzo says. “Five years ago, Minnesota would’ve been in that conversation. And today, Minnesota is still in the top five and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Finally, the ‘elite’ Big 10 conference has been a big disappointment and eliminated many of the traditional rivalries for Minnesota and given fans one more reason not to show up at Mariucci Arena. Wisconsin is mired in last place.

Look for traditional powers Minnesota and Wisconsin to be eyeing changes at the end of this season. Don Lucia and Mike Eaves are subject to major changes in the collegiate hockey landscape and are first-hand witnesses to their program meltdowns.

One option to fill these openings could reside in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. While George Gwozdecky appears to love his current challenge at Valor Christian, can he resist the pull of these traditional collegiate powerhouses? Time will tell.