The seniors on the Gophers men's hockey team have extra motivation this season. But it is hardly a motivational tool they would prefer to have to use.
The Gophers have failed to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament the previous three seasons -- a fate the seniors once would have deemed unfathomable, considering the program's storied legacy that includes five NCAA titles, 19 Frozen Four appearances and 32 tournament appearances.
"One of the reasons I came here was to win a national championship,'' senior forward Jake Hansen said. "We don't want to be the first class to go through four years and not play in the tournament. That's something that's definitely motivating us.''
That drought is chief among the reasons this is a defining season for the program.
The Gophers fan base appears every bit as bothered by the inglorious streak as the team's coaches and players. Last season, for the first time in years, there was a significant drop in announced attendance, from an average of 10,108 in 2009-10 to 9,544. And the number of fans actually in the building has experienced an even greater decline. Fans have voiced their unhappiness with the program on talk radio and chat boards, and coach Don Lucia has not escaped criticism despite a résumé that includes national titles at Minnesota in 2002 and '03.
"It's disappointing to me, it's disappointing to the coaches, it's disappointing to the players and fans,'' Lucia said. "You know what, I do take it personally as the leader of this program that we haven't achieved the level of success that we expect, and want.''
The coach's contract, extended in 2003, is due to expire April 30, 2012. It is highly unusual to allow a coach to enter a season in the final year of his contract, largely because it gives recruits reason to wonder who will be at the helm when they arrive.
A group of Gophers hockey alumni lobbied university athletic director Joel Maturi against giving Lucia an extension, but Maturi has opted to stand by his coach. Lucia reportedly has agreed to an extension, with an official announcement expected soon. But extensions for struggling coaches frequently come with favorable buyouts for the school; Gophers football coach Tim Brewster received an extension before the 2010 season, and was fired midway through the schedule.
The offseason produced one significant change in Lucia's staff, with assistant John Hill departing and Mike Guentzel, who had left the program in 2008, returning. Hill had been in charge of Gophers defensemen and had a major role in recruiting, and his work in those areas had become a hot topic among alumni and fans.
Lucia says he feels no extra pressure this season, but his predecessor, Doug Woog, who was pushed out in 1999 after two losing seasons, said he thinks he knows what the coach is likely feeling. The bottom line, Woog said, is that Lucia probably knows this is a make-or-break year for him.
"I think you have to say, 'Hey, you can't have wins decline, people in the building decline,''' Woog said. "Too many people put pressure on you, including the people responsible for making decisions. It becomes a tsunami. There's no question they have to have a good year.''
Reasons to believe
Lucia appears genuinely optimistic about this season's team, which started out with a pair of nonconference shutout victories over Sacred Heart last weekend. He seems energized by the prospect of a young, blue-collar squad.
The Gophers have been hit hard in recent years by early NHL departures. In the past five years, Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, Kyle Okposo, Stu Bickel, Nick Leddy and Jordan Schroeder all left with at least two years of eligibility remaining, and Johnson, Kessel and Leddy were one-and-dones. Such losses, Lucia said, have altered his recruiting philosophy.
"Obviously, you can't keep bringing in guys and losing them in one or two years and be successful,'' Lucia said. "No successful business could do that. You have to have a mix of kids who are going to be here four years, and [others] two years. And the one-year guys really set you back.''
The early departures have left the Gophers in a perpetual youth movement. This season's team lost only one player early to the NHL -- Aaron Ness left after his junior year -- but is still young, with a combined 19 sophomores (12) and freshmen (7) on its 27-man roster. The program hasn't had a 20-goal scorer since Ryan Stoa in 2008-09. But Lucia has an All-WCHA senior goalie in Kent Patterson, and returns his top two centers from last season: sophomores Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula.
Coach on the mend
Lucia also appears to have his health back. His supporters note that the team's decline coincided with Lucia being struck by sarciodosis -- an autoimmune disease in which clusters of cells form in body organs, in this case a mass on his brain that produced intense headaches -- in December of 2008. The Gophers were ranked No. 1 nationally in November, but finished 17-13-7, missing the NCAA field for the first time since 2000.
"You can just tell that he's much more enthusiastic, much more upbeat now,'' said former North Stars General Manager Lou Nanne, who has two grandsons who have committed to play for the Gophers.
Lucia agrees, saying he feels "better than I have in four years.''
It adds up to a sense of optimism as the team prepares for this weekend's WCHA opener at Minnesota Duluth.
"It's a great group of guys,'' senior captain Taylor Matson said. "We're really close off the ice, too. That's a big difference from other years."
Lucia is counting on that chemistry to override the obvious concerns about inexperience and goal-scoring punch.
"You don't have to be the best team, but you have to be a team,'' the coach said. "You can't have guys pulling off in different directions, or a guy worrying, 'Did I get my points tonight? Did I get my ice time tonight? Geez, I'm not in the lineup tonight, I'm getting the shaft.' I don't think we'll have that type of group this year. I think we'll have a group that wants Gopher hockey to be successful more than they want to be successful individually.''
If they aren't, the seniors will depart without an NCAA tournament berth. And a program with questions going into the season could have even more coming out of it.