ST. PAUL, Minn. — A few hours before they played in their first Frozen Four, members of the 2002 Minnesota team watched a video that tied their purpose this weekend at the Xcel Energy Center to another, larger one.
As much as the Golden Gophers are playing for those that skate on the ice now, they’re also playing Saturday night’s NCAA championship game for those who have come before.
That’s the way with Minnesota hockey. The tradition gets passed down from class to class, player to player.
The video the Gophers watched before their 3-2, semifinal victory Thursday night over Michigan included clips from the 1978-79 Gophers, the last Minnesota team to win the national championship.
“There’s nothing else you play for than that ‘M’ on your jersey,” Minnesota sophomore Grant Potulny said. “Just being in the same boat as a team of the caliber of ’79 is unbelievable. To have a chance to go down in history and be just like them, that’s something that you never know when it’s going to happen again, so you have to take full advantage of it.”
Said Gophers junior Jeff Taffe: “A big part of the state’s pride is Gopher hockey. We haven’t won since ’79, and that’s a little too long.”
Anxiety was noticeably absent from the Gophers’ semifinal victory. It showed up early Friday afternoon in at least a few of the players.
As the drama increased at the Hobey Baker Memorial Award presentation Friday afternoon, Potulny got more and more nervous, he admitted.
And he wasn’t even up for the award. Gophers senior Jordan Leopold became only the fourth defenseman to win Hobey.
“This is a great day for hockey,” Potulny said, “and especially Gopher hockey.”
It’s been a good weekend for the Gophers thus far, but history might not be riding with them.
The last two players who have won the Hobey Baker Award one day and played in the championship game the next — New Hampshire’s Jason Krog in 1999 and Boston College’s Mike Mottau in 2000 — each lost the title game.
“We’re 2-for-2 right now with winning the game the other night and Leo winning the Hobey today,” Taffe said. “Hopefully we can make it a third tomorrow.”
Minnesota coach Don Lucia hopes Leopold winning the Hobey doesn’t negatively impact his team as it prepares for the last game of the season.
He said his team has had two emotional days leading up to the national championship game — the physical semifinal game on Thursday and the award announcement on Friday.
“Now more than anything, it’s just trying to recharge the battery so the excitement’s there for tomorrow, not the nervousness,” Lucia said. “We’ve all seen games where guys want to win so bad, but there’s nothing there. We need to make sure we get back into the emotion. I’m sure the fans are going to do a lot to help us in that regard.”
The Gophers’ plans for Friday evening included dinner in downtown St. Paul and some film study. The plans might not include a lot of sleep for some.
“It’s going to be tough to sleep for anybody on our team — not only us and the coaches but maybe some of the fans,” Taffe said. “All you can do is prepare the best you can.”
The X Factor
Each team in the championship game has something that could lift it over the other. Maine has the memory of Shawn Walsh and the inspiration that has brought through its tournament run; Minnesota has the home crowd, the size of which surprised some in the Gophers’ camp.
Potulny, however, said the Gophers might have another factor working in their favor. In last season’s NCAA first round, Maine tied the Gophers on a goal with less than four seconds remaining, and knocked them out in overtime.
“A lot of the guys remember that and it gives us a little bit of extra incentive,” he said. “With their emotion for their coach and us being in St. Paul, they cross each other out. Maybe that’ll be an X factor for us.”
Taffe was eight years old when Randy Skarda’s shot hit the right post. Potulny wasn’t a Gophers fan.
But they’ve been hearing plenty about Skarda, the right post and the 1989 national championship that never was for Minnesota.
Playing at the St. Paul Civic Center, on the same site where the Xcel Center now sits, the Gophers lost the ’89 championship game to Harvard in overtime.
And for those who have put that game in the past, the folks running the Jumbotron at the Xcel Center brought the memories back, showing parts of the overtime during an intermission of Thursday’s first semifinal.
“It’s heartbreaking because guys still talk about it to this day,” Taffe said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who talks about what could have been. I want to get it done tomorrow night, along with 20 other guys that are in that locker room with myself.”
The 1989 game is one that Gophers fans want to forget. Lucia hopes his team gives them one to remember 13 years later.
“One of the things we try to emphasize is, don’t waste this opportunity. You don’t know when you’re going to get another one,” Lucia said. “You want to make the most of it and not have any regrets when the season’s over.
“There’s no guarantees — no guarantees you’re going to be back in the NCAA tournament a year from now, there’s no guarantees you’re going to be at the Frozen Four, there’s no guarantees you’ll ever get a chance to play for a national title again. Our kids have that opportunity.”