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Gophers Hockey Notebook: First 'Skate the Cities' a huge initial hit

Gophers forward Scott Reedy met a future Gopher on Monday at the Roseville (Minn.) Skating Center as the team participated in the first Skate the Cities event, featuring a full practice and an open skate for young fans. (John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press)1 / 2
Gophers coach Bob Motzko diagrammed a drill during the team's open practice at Roseville (Minn.) Skating Center during Monday's inaugural Skate the Cities event. (John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press)2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS -- The holiday lights are turned off and the tree has been put away in most homes.

But while the Minnesota Gophers men's hockey team returned to practice late on Christmas Day and started playing games again three days later, the University of Minnesota remains on break for a few more weeks. That means that the dorms are quiet, and there are no classes to attend.

Rather than let cabin fever fester among the hockey team, the Gophers headed off campus this week for a unique few hours of ice time.

The first Skate the Cities event was held Monday night, Jan. 7, at the Roseville (Minn.) Skating Center -- a complex used by suburban youth and high school teams. The Gophers held a full practice that was open to the public, then spent an hour skating with kids and signing autographs.

Gophers coach Bob Motzko said it’s a fun way to do something a little bit different during the academic break and reach out to fans.

“It’s just crazy how long we have off. We don’t start school until the 21st of January, so the one thing we have is time, and we’ve got a lot of rinks around town,” he said. “I wish we could do a lot more than this, but it’s great that we can get out in the community, meet kids, and say thanks for being supporters.”

The Gophers will do it again Jan. 14, with an outdoor practice and open skate at the St. Louis Park, Minn., arena complex. Some players were mildly skeptical of the idea at first, but warmed up as soon as they saw the smiles on the faces of 100 or more kids that came out to skate.

“It was really fun. I think more fun than we initially expected, and it was a great turnout too. I wasn’t really expecting this many to show up,” Gophers co-captain Tyler Sheehy said. “It was great to practice in front of a little bit of a crowd and the energy was great, so I think all the guys enjoyed it.”

WJC bragging rights go to the Finn

Gophers freshman forward Sampo Ranta was on the ice Saturday night and didn’t get to see his Finnish friends score late to beat Team USA 3-2 in the gold medal game of the World Junior Championship. But he reveled in the highlights later.

“It was great. They had a great tournament and a great game so it was fun to watch. They got it so I’m happy for them,” said Ranta, who was one of the final players cut from the Finnish team. “I grew up with those guys, playing against them and I had many friends on that team, so I’m happy for them.

"With USA-Finland in the finals, I was happy they got it done so I have the bragging rights on that one.”

Ranta’s Gophers teammates said the only Finn -- on a team full of Americans -- has offered a few reminders of who came home from Vancouver with the top prize.

“He gives us a little but of grief here and there, but good for him and it’s obviously exciting,” Sheehy said.

The Americans, led by Minnesota State Mankato head coach Mike Hastings, got silver after winning bronze in 2018 and gold in 2017 with Motzko coaching.

“Great job by USA Hockey,” Motzko said. “Obviously heartbroken that they lose that game, but what a job they did to medal four years in a row. Coach Hastings and those guys did a fantastic job.”

The Gophers are gamers too

So what do the Gophers do when they’re not skating, to fill all of that downtime before classes resume in two weeks? Like many young men between the ages of 18 and 22, gaming consoles are the place where they gather.

“With no school you can get more of the guys together. A lot of us play Xbox, so now there’s more Xbox time. We can hang out more together, so it’s a lot of fun,” said freshman forward Blake McLaughlin, noting that senior forward Tommy Novak is the reigning e-sports champion. “It’s a lot of ‘Call of Duty’ right now and we’re having a (NHL) tourney soon. (Brannon) McManus thinks he’s the best but Tommy (Novak) says no. So it’ll be fun.”