MINNEAPOLIS - They coach teams located more than 1,000 miles apart, in vastly different settings, but St. Lawrence University coach Mark Morris and Gophers coach Bob Motzko have more in common than you might think.
By comparison to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, both Canton, N.Y. (population 6,500) and St. Lawrence (enrollment 2,493) are tiny. But the Saints were a powerhouse in ECAC Hockey for a 15-year stretch between the late 1980s and early 2000s, making a pair of Frozen Four trips, and beating the Gophers in the national semifinals in 1988.
Morris and Motzko have both been tasked with reviving the fortunes of programs once considered annual contenders for the NCAA tournament, and both are doing so after having formerly coached an arch-rival.
Morris coached Clarkson, St. Lawrence’s neighborhood rival, for 14 full seasons and led the Golden Knights to a Frozen Four appearance in St. Paul in 1991 before he was fired by the school in 2002. After more than a decade coaching prep and pro hockey, Morris took over the Saints in 2016, nearly a decade after their most recent NCAA tournament trip, but has been unable thus far to replicate his earlier college success.
“We’re pretty realistic right now,” Morris said this week, reflecting on his team’s 1-8-0 start. “Our team is in a rebuilding phase and we have a lot of young guys chasing their tails.”
The Gophers (2-4-1) played at St. Lawrence two years ago, picking up a 2-2 tie after trailing by two in the third period. Defenseman Jack Sadek started that rally with his first collegiate goal, and as a senior is the only active Gopher with a point versus the Saints.
“They’re always grinders, so we’re glad to have them in our barn this time,” Sadek said.
He will be one of the Gophers tasked with stopping forward Keenan Suthers, a sophomore from the Ontario suburbs of Detroit, who has scored four goals, 33 percent of the Saints’ dozen goals this season. At 6-foot-8, Suthers is hard to miss on the ice, no matter where he plays.
“We’ll take (offense) from wherever we can find it,” said Morris, who may be juggling goaltenders as well after senior Arthur Brey was hurt in practice this week. “Keenan has really made some great strides this year. We moved him from wing to center kind of out of necessity and he’s done really well in that role.”
The Gophers are also in search of consistent offense, having scored 10 total goals in their two wins, and five goals, combined, in their four losses and a tie. Friday’s game is the start of a season-long six-game homestand and some look at this as a chance for the Gophers to build confidence.
Motzko, who spent part of the week encouraging his defense to get pucks to the Saints’ net more quickly and more often, won’t fall into that trap.
“They have one win and we have two. So let’s play the games this weekend,” Motzko said. “Mark Morris has been around a long time and he’s got a whole lotta wins behind his name.”
Note: Saturday’s game will be an 8 p.m. CT start to accommodate traffic from the Gophers’ home football game versus Northwestern.