Gophers freshmen emerge at the right time to fuel second-half surge and Boston trip

When it appeared the sky was falling on the Minnesota Gophers in January, their coach stayed calm, installed a new goalie and got vital contributions from a talented group of rookies, earning the program's first Frozen Four trip since 2014.

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

BOSTON – Bob Motzko’s audience for his weekly media availability at 3M Arena at Mariucci usually features a few student journalists, a few newspaper/online folks, a few bloggers and the team’s radio voices. On occasion a TV camera or two will show up.

And then there was the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 11, when the Minnesota Gophers coach found himself navigating a forest of TV tripods, columnists and myriad other members of the Twin Cities press just to get to the podium.

Follow the 2022 NCAA men's hockey tournament coverage on The Rink Live for previews, recaps, photos, information and more as the teams play for a national championship in Boston.

Two days earlier, star goalie Jack LaFontaine had abruptly signed a pro contract and left college hockey. COVID tests administered after a sweep at Michigan State showed positive results for four players and a staff member. About that time it became clear that three Gophers – forwards Matthew Knies and Ben Meyers, and defenseman Brock Faber – would likely miss six games when they traveled to the Olympics.

A season filled with so much promise that began with the Gophers picked to win the Big Ten title, was to the eyes of the outsiders, coming unglued quickly. But Motzko wore a big smile, joking that he had been lonely with just the normal handful of media members to that point in the season, and making it clear that the sky was not necessarily falling in Gopherland.

“We’ll know in March and April how the history is going to play out,” Motzko said then, treating the unexpected player transactions no different than if LaFontaine had been lost for the season due to injury.


The March history is in the books, and despite all the perception of midseason turmoil, this has been the most successful of Motzko’s four years as the program’s head coach. The Gophers rattled off nine wins in a row and claimed the Big Ten title. After a loss to Michigan in the conference tournament title game, they went to the Worcester Regional and won a pair to advance to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014. And they did it all without panicking.

Minnesota Gophers forward Aaron Huglen (7) takes the puck past Michigan State forward Jesse Tucker (16) during the first period Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. Jason Wachter / The Rink Live

While some note that Justen Close’s numbers since taking over in goal are better than those posted by LaFontaine pre-departure, Motzko also points to the emergence of the team’s freshmen forwards as they got acclimated to the pace of college hockey as a major factor in the second-half success.

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.
Jordan Howden and Terell Smith had early struggles at Minnesota but developed into pros
Mariano Sori-Marin and Thomas Rush are set to join the Gophers’ best-represented position in the pros
The Gophers football coach and Aggies basketball coach have forged a friendship over last decade. It has produced professional development for both
Running back Zach Evans and receivers Le’Meke Brockington and Elijah Spencer were top players Saturday.
The Richmond, Virginia, product had more than 30 scholarship offers, but picked the Gophers over his father’s alma mater
Guard from Wayzata led Minnesota in scoring last season with a 15.6-point average
Jacob Quillan finished a 2-on-1 rush with a goal for the Bobcats to secure the school's first NCAA championship
The freshman forward from Ontario led the nation in scoring for a Wolverines team that made a Frozen Four run after a season of off-ice turmoil.
Freshman defenseman scores twice in the third period to help Minnesota to a 6-2 win over Boston University
P.J. Fleck’s run-heavy history might shift with passing game weapons
Also, new assistant coach Nick Monroe goes by ‘Swag Daddy’

“It took a little time for that to come together. I think in February our freshmen had 16 goals, and last weekend (at the Worcester Regional) of our seven goals, freshmen had four of them,” Motzko said in advance of the team leaving for Boston. “We needed that young group to materialize offensively for us, because they’re awfully talented. In the second half they’ve really hit their mark as a group.”

On the day before their semifinal meeting with Minnesota State Mankato, Motzko will stand before a microphone and meet with the assembled national college hockey media at the rink in Boston and talk about his team’s mission to beat the Mavericks, then beat either Michigan or Denver, and claim the program’s sixth NCAA title. It would be the Gophers’ first since they won back-to-back crowns in 2002 and 2003, when Motzko was an assistant coach under Don Lucia.

One expects that the dozens of reporters, TV cameras and clicking shutters there, once again, will bring a smile to the coach’s face.

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, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
What To Read Next
Get Local