Bottoms Up For Minnesota

Upon graduating, how many college hockey alumni can say that they helped their programs earn a better record in each of their four seasons? How many finish their careers with twice as many wins as they had in their freshman season?

If you know the answers to those questions and are the first to e-mail a definitive list to our editor, I’ll personally send you a copy of the latest CD by The Zambonis along with a polite suggestion that you try to get out more often to make contact with others of your species.

Suffice it to say, though, that the University of Minnesota is well on the way to pulling off its first 30-win season since 1995-1996. The Golden Gopher seniors — most notably captains Jordan Leopold and John Pohl, along with netminder Adam Hauser — struggled through a 15-19-9 campaign under outgoing coach Doug Woog during their freshman year.

Minnesota responded by turning over the reins to then-Colorado College coach Don Lucia, and the results have been similar to the stock market in the 1990s — up and up and up.

During Lucia’s first year, the team finished in the black by a modest margin, going 20-19-2. Last year it posted an impressive 27-13-2 record and lost a heartbreaker to Maine in the NCAA East Regional.

Now the Golden Gophers have a sparkling 14-2-3 record and are ranked third in the nation among a three-team WCHA logjam at the top of the charts. Altogether, major-league baseball may be an endangered species these days in the Twin Cities, but college hockey’s fortunes are looking brighter than ever.

So what’s behind the Gophers’ steady climb back toward college hockey’s elite? According to their coach and their captains, it’s a hearty stew of leadership, talent, and team cohesiveness.

Lucia is quick to point out that he inherited the team’s excellent upperclassmen from the previous coaching regime. Still, he soon recognized that changes would need to be made if that talent would prove to be a foundation for success.

“One of the things I felt was that I didn’t want kids that were wanting to be a part of Gopher tradition — I wanted kids who wanted to make their own,” Lucia said. “We didn’t want kids who were just happy to be here; we wanted kids who wanted to succeed and were willing to pay the price.”

In addition to questioning the work ethic of some of his players early in his coaching tenure, Lucia also was startled to learn about the team’s chemistry … or lack thereof.

“That was one of the things that surprised me when I took over,” Lucia said. “I didn’t feel it was a very cohesive team, a team that got along well.

“It was kind of every guy was for themselves, and you can’t be successful that way,” said Lucia. “Any team that I’ve ever been a part of, nobody really cared who got the glory.”

“Earlier on it was a little rougher, more the freshman, sophomore, junior, senior thing going on,” Leopold added. “More cliques, I guess. Normally guys are straight out of high school every time, and now we’ve got guys coming in from junior programs: Some [sophomores] are older than me.”

Lucia wasn’t about to tolerate an “us and them” situation between the upperclassmen and the new recruits.

“I don’t believe in that caste system,” Lucia said. “I don’t believe in initiation, and I wasn’t going to allow it to happen.

“I think the upperclassmen the last years have really done a good job including the freshmen and making them welcome and a part of the team,” Lucia said. “It’s enough of an adjustment going to college your freshmen year without feeling like you’re getting picked on by the older guys.”

Another big change in the Lucia Era has been an intriguing combination: an emphasis on hard work and discipline are tempered with an acceptance of a player’s individuality within a system.

“He’s a little bit more a disciplinarian; he expects a lot out of you,” Leopold said. “You just have to practice hard and give a good effort. That’s what he’s looking for. If you don’t give it, you’re probably not going to find yourself in the lineup.

“It was a little bit looser my freshman year when Woog was around. It was more of a loose environment — guys could do whatever — there wasn’t a lot of direction going on there. Now we know what we want to accomplish.”

“It’s very businesslike,” Pohl said. “He doesn’t yell and scream very often. He lets us play our own game; when we’re out there we’re not puppets of a system.”

“That’s very true,” Leopold agreed. “He’s a disciplinarian off the ice, but on the ice it’s totally different. He’s all about creativity — just make sure you do your basic job, and then you can do whatever after that.”

When it comes to Leopold, Gopher fans were nervous that the talented blueliner would indeed “do whatever” at the close of last season: Immediately after the team was ousted from the NCAA tournament, the Golden Valley, Minn., native strongly considered going pro with the Calgary Flames, which own his NHL rights.

“It was really one of those decisions I wanted to be made quick. I wanted to know what I was doing,” Leopold said. “And I made it probably within four days.”

“If a kid’s ready to play in the National Hockey League, that’s one thing,” Lucia said. “But one of things we had going for us was that Jordan was 20 years old at the time and just turning 21 in August. There’s not a lot of 21-year-old defensemen playing in the National Hockey League.

“Calgary was very up-front and kind of leaving it up to Jordan what he wanted to do,” Lucia added. “They weren’t in any kind of hurry to pull him out, and Jordan had a chance to be a Hobey Baker candidate and maybe win it; he also had a chance for us to be a very good hockey team, and I think Jordan’s going to graduate this spring on time.

“All those things were factors.”

The decision obviously came as great news to Pohl, who had high praise for his teammate.

“I think in a way he does it all,” Pohl said. “His skating is really underrated. I don’t think you notice it because he’s the not the fastest guy in the world, but he’s so smooth.

“I was actually thinking about it [Saturday] night during the game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him fall down or get knocked down,” Pohl added. “He’s got great hands; he can shoot the puck really well. He can pass; he plays defense.”

When asked to turn the tables and evaluate Pohl — currently fourth in the nation in scoring and tied for second in assists — Leopold was blunt in his appraisal.

“He’s the garbageman, that guy!” Leopold said, chuckling. “Ever since back in high school I’ve watched him. He’s a magician around the net and that’s really his strength. He sits just to the right side of the goaltender all the time on the power play. You feed him the puck, and he puts it in. That’s his strength.”

“He’s a smart player,” Leopold added. “Not everybody has the instincts; he’s got a lot of good instincts about just where to be. He’s always there with his stick in the right spot.”

Given Leopold’s appraisal of him as a natural goal-scorer, it’s interesting to learn that the coaching staff has had to pester Pohl to shoot the puck.

“For a guy who is one of our elite players, in 18 games he’d only had like 37 or 38 shots on goal,” Lucia said. “With all that ice time, you’ve got other guys with 70 or 80 shots on goal at the time. So we told him, ‘You’ve got to be a little more selfish and look for that shot first.'”

Lucia gave Pohl a little talking-to on this subject before the championship game of the Mariucci Classic, and Pohl paid quick dividends, scoring two goals and getting one of his two assists directly off of a shot.

"Jordan Leopold is probably our hardest-working defenseman, and Johnny Pohl is probably our hardest-working forward … That’s a great combination when they’re All-League players, and the younger guys can see how hard they work."

— Minnesota coach Don Lucia

“He came in; it was a bad angle,” Lucia said. “Normally he wouldn’t have even thought about shooting it, but he shot it low at the goaltender’s feet, and the rebound came out, and [linemate Barry] Tallackson scored on it.

“Normally he would have kept the puck and wanted to look for that pretty play all the time.”

That’s a typical example of the coachability and work ethic that separate Leopold and Pohl from most college players.

“Jordan Leopold is probably our hardest-working defenseman, and Johnny Pohl is probably our hardest-working forward,” Lucia said. “That’s a great combination when they’re All-League players, and the younger guys can see how hard they work.”

If Leopold and Pohl are two of the most critical pieces of the puzzle, though, it would be a mistake to overlook the career years of many Golden Gophers. Hauser’s save percentage is currently .916, his best ever if it holds up. Junior Jeff Taffe already has surpassed his goal total for last season and is tied for fourth in the country with 16 lamplighters to date.

Perhaps most importantly for the future, sophomore defenseman Paul Martin is keeping pace with Leopold in points, and six of the team’s ten top scorers are in their freshman or sophomore years. Highly-touted recruit Thomas Vanek committed to the program in November and should bring more offensive firepower to Mariucci Arena next season to help fill the void left when Pohl and Leopold move on.

In the meantime, though, the Gophers are setting their sights on a very short trip: The Frozen Four will be in St. Paul this April. Leopold concedes that anything less would be a major disappointment.

“It would be because, heck, I’ve been here four years,” Leopold said. “I didn’t come back to not get there. That’s where I’ve always wanted to be. It’s in St. Paul; I think everybody on our team realizes that. It’s really a home-field advantage if we can get here and play at home.”

Lucia doesn’t seem inclined to let complacency slip in between now and then.

“From here on out, we’ve got to continue to get better defensively,” Lucia said. “You get to the end of the year, and goals are a lot more difficult to come by.

“We have to continue to get better without the puck,” Lucia added. “Goaltending’s going to be a key, as it always is: You’re not going to go deep into the playoffs without outstanding goaltending, and Adam’s been very good so far this year, and we’re rotating the freshmen in to keep him mentally and physically fresh, so he can be ready to go when March rolls around.”

You can’t argue with a guy whose coaching record features not a single losing season in eight prior years of coaching — just the kind of a guy you want at the helm if the Gophers are to regain the year-in, year-out consistency that they enjoyed in the late 1980s, when the program had five consecutive seasons of 30-plus wins.

Given that the team is just a few years removed from that 15-win season, Gopher fans certainly have good reasons to say “Bottoms up!” for this New Year.