The last college hockey games in Minnesota were played on the Sunday night of March 8, when both the Gophers and Bemidji State men’s teams advanced in decisive third games of their first-round conference playoff tournaments. Since then, college hockey fans have been at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted the shutdown of the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments.
Finally, more than eight months later, college hockey returns to Minnesota on Thursday night, when the Gophers men open their 100th season with a two-game series against Penn State, and Minnesota’s women follow with a matinees on Saturday and Sunday against Ohio State. In the WCHA, action starts on the men’s and women’s side this weekend.
Here are a handful of items I’m looking forward to with hockey’s return:
Ben ‘Silverback’ Meyers
Gophers sophomore forward Ben Meyers has never had a problem scoring goals. He had 114 in four years at Delano High School and 58 in two seasons and five games with the USHL’s Fargo Force. For the Gophers last season, he finished with 10 goals, coming on strong in the second half of the season and finishing with a pair of goals in the playoff-clinching win over Notre Dame. He also was the Gophers’ best player in the dot, winning 52.4% of his faceoffs.
Meyers’ worth ethic this offseason during the pandemic impressed goalie Jack LaFontaine.
“Benny Meyers looks like a silverback gorilla,’’ LaFontaine said. “All he’s been doing is push-ups in his room.’’
Defenseman Carl Fish
Sure, NHL draft picks Brock Faber and Mike Koster have the skills to make immediate impacts among the Gophers’ four freshmen, but I’m most interested to see how defenseman Carl Fish develops.
The 6-2, 210-pound 21-year old is a St. Paul Johnson graduate who’s developed his game the past two years with the Bismarck Bobcats of the NAHL. Let’s see: He’s a Johnson High Govie and toiled in the NAHL, so he’s got the underdog label down pat. There’s more to like, though. “He is something that we need – big, nasty,’’ coach Bob Motzko said.
Yeah, sign me up to see that. The Gophers could use another Matt DeMarchi.
Senior year for ‘Laffer’
Anyone who’s covered the Gophers lately knows who the go-to quote is, be it win or loss. It’s goalie Jack LaFontaine, who’s quick with the wit in good times and just as accountable when he lets in a softie.
Thing is, the Michigan transfer is honing his game quite well, too, and don’t confuse his fun-loving ways for frivolity. He allowed two or fewer goals in his final five games last season, keeping the Gophersin the Big Ten regular-season race and helping them advance past Notre Dame in the tournament’s first round.
“We know what Jack’s capable of doing,’’ Motzko said, “and if he can take that to another level …’’
Don’t worry about LaFontaine losing his comic edge, though. It’s still there. When asked about the wisp of a mustache fellow goalie Jared Moe is growing, LaFontaine responded, “It’s egregious. … It’s just absolutely heinous to see.’’
Abbey Murphy and Co.
When the Gophers face Ohio State on Saturday and Sunday afternoon at Ridder Arena, it will mark the debut of Minnesota’s highly rated freshman class, led by Abbey Murphy, the nation’s top recruit. Murphy, who was voted the WCHA preseason rookie of the year by conference coaches, helped lead the United States to two gold medals and one silver medal in the past three Under-18 world championships. She’ll be joined by Minnetonka defender Maggie Nicholson, the No. 3 national recruit, plus three others in the top 12 of NeutralZone.net’s rankings.
Frost vs. Muzerall
If the debut of Murphy isn’t enough to get you to pay attention to the Gophers-Buckeyes series, maybe the coaching matchup of Brad Frost vs. Nadine Muzerall will. Frost has led the Gophers to four national championships, and Muzerall was a Minnesota assistant coach for all four. Muzerall has led the Buckeyes to one Frozen Four berth and last season’s WCHA tournament championship, and she had the Gophers’ number in 2019-20, as Ohio State won three of the five matchups, including a 4-3 overtime triumph in the WCHA semifinals. Frost and Muzerall were set to match wits in the NCAA quarterfinals last March before COVID-19 prompted the NCAA to shut down sports.
Mavericks vs. Beavers, times four
The two best WCHA men’s teams last season were Minnesota State and Bemidji State, and the rivals are ranked No. 5 and No. 16, respectively as the conference begins play. They meet Sunday and Monday in Bemidji in a nonconference series pushed back two days because of COVID-19 concerns, then play next Friday and Saturday for a league series in Mankato. The coaching matchup is one to savor, with Beavers coach Tom Serratore having a Frozen Four berth to his credit and Mavericks coach Mike Hastings owning a nation’s-best 92 wins over the past three seasons.
WCHA’s balancing act
In what might be the final season for the WCHA men’s league – seven teams are leaving for the new CCHA next fall – the conference will feature nine teams. Alaska Anchorage announced it won’t be playing this season, and that might be the end of the program, which is targeted for elimination by the school’s administration. WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson got some good news Wednesday when Alaska (Fairbanks) decided to play this season rather than shut it down.
The NCHC pod in Omaha
On Dec. 1, eight teams, including No. 1 North Dakota, No. 3 Minnesota Duluth and No. 4 Denver, will gather in Omaha as the NCHC opens its season with 40 games over three weeks in a pod. There already is one COVID-19 complication, with Colorado College hitting pause for two weeks, but it’ll be interesting and entertaining to see such a collection of talent in one place. One game to circle: the first meeting between North Dakota vs. Minnesota Duluth on Dec. 10.