MINNEAPOLIS — During their opening game of last season’s Mariucci Classic tournament, the Minnesota Gophers trailed in-state rival Bemidji State twice before rallying with four unanswered goals to beat the Beavers 5-2. It was a rare loss for the Beavers in the second half of the season. Bemidji State went 14-3-2 after New Years’ Day and was the No. 2 seed in the WCHA tournament and headed for the conference semifinals when the college hockey season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
BSU will get another crack at the Gophers if the 2020-21 season starts on time. The Beavers’ full schedule, released last week, shows them opening the season with a game at Minnesota on Saturday, Oct. 3.
“Obviously it’s fun playing the Gophers. I think our fans get excited and our players get excited, but more importantly it’s good for our alumni in the Twin Cities,” said Beavers coach Tom Serratore. “It keeps a lot of people engaged when we can bring the rivalry down there to where a majority of our Bemidji State alumni live. If they don’t get back to Bemidji often, this is an opportunity to come see the Beavers play in the 612 area code.
"When we played there last year, I couldn’t believe how many Beavers jerseys and sweatshirts I saw. So it’s a great way to start the season.”
The Gophers have not yet released their official schedule, but the slate of games revealed by other schools show a very challenging October ahead for the U of M.
After the one-gamer with BSU, the Gophers will travel to Duluth for the Ice Breaker tournament, where they will face UMD on Oct. 9, and either Providence or Minnesota State Mankato the next night. And North Dakota’s schedule shows a series versus the Gophers in Grand Forks on Oct. 23-24. The Fighting Hawks swept a series in Minneapolis last season on Thanksgiving weekend.
"We need to be playing Bemidji. We need to be playing Mankato and St. Cloud and Duluth and North Dakota, as much as we can," said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, who has stressed the importance of maintaining the region's rivalries.
On St. Cloud State's schedule, the Huskies will play Jan. 2-3 in the Mariucci Classic at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The opponents for their two games have not been released, but St. Cloud State lost to Minnesota in the championship game of the Classic last year.
Zuhlsdorf seeking a free agent contract
Like many recent college graduates, the employment possibilities are endless for Gophers defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf, who completed his senior season in March and earned a degree in business marketing from the U of M this month. Drafted by Tampa Bay in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Zuhlsdorf attended the Lightning development camp five times, but was not offered a contract by the team and will soon be free to sign anywhere.
According to Zulhsdorf’s agent, former Gopher forward Ben Hankinson, the Lightning will retain Zulhsdorf’s rights until Aug. 15, at which point Zuhlsdorf hopes to sign an NHL or minor league contract with one of the league’s 30 other teams.
“We’re going to test out free agency and see how that goes,” Zuhlsdorf said last week in a phone conversation from his home near the U of M. “We’re going into the unknown here. We’re going to be looking for teams that want me to play for them, and I’ll probably have to go to a camp for an AHL team other than Tampa.
"I think I’ll find a team that’s willing to try me out. I’m pretty motivated and bummed out that Tampa didn’t work out. My internal fire is bigger than it’s ever been right now.”
Zuhlsdorf, who had a goal and eight assists last season, has been running and doing online workouts to stay in shape, and said he and Gophers teammates are avoiding hanging out as to not put themselves or others at risk of spreading the virus.
“It’s been a weird dynamic when you’re part of a team, but we know what we have to do to make sure we’re all healthy and can end this thing quicker,” said Zuhlsdorf.
Sharks from the East Coast coming to college hockey
With college athletic departments and their budgets thrown into turmoil due to pandemic-related cancellations, there has been a nagging fear that some of the nation’s 60 current NCAA Division I hockey programs could be suspended or dropped in the near future. The likely addition of a program at the University of Illinois, for example, was recently postponed for at least another year.
Instead of contraction, there was some surprising good news recently. Long Island University, located in the suburbs of New York City, announced its intent to add a D-I men’s program for the 2020-21 season and beyond. With a main campus in Brookville, N.Y., LIU has a total enrollment of 15,000. Their teams, which wear powder blue and gold, are nicknamed the Sharks.
Long Island is home to 7.5 million residents (more people than live in Minnesota and the Dakotas combined) as well as the NHL’s New York Islanders, and has already produced dozens of college hockey standouts, including St. Coud State star goalie Bobby Goepfert and 2009 Hobey Baker Award winner Matt Gilroy from Boston University.
“It’s great for Long Island hockey. It has come such a long way from when I grew up. We had to leave the island all the time to play hockey in Connecticut and New Jersey and were always traveling,” said Gilroy, who is originally from Bellmore, N.Y., and retired last year after parts of five seasons in the NHL and four more in the KHL, in Russia and Finland. “Now you look at the Long Island kids in the NHL like (Rangers defenseman Adam) Fox, (Bruins defenseman Charlie) McAvoy and (Ducks forward Sonny) Milano that are really great players, so why not have a team there that people can stay home and play for?”
The Sharks have yet to identify a home arena, announce a schedule or hire a coaching staff. Among the names mentioned as possible candidates for the LIU head coaching job are former Miami University coach Rico Blasi, and well-known college hockey broadcaster Dave Starman, who is a prominent coach in the USA Hockey system and lives on Long Island.