The Big Ten came into existence as a full-fledged hockey conference 10 years ago. Amidst the whining that echoed through what was then properly called Mariucci Arena, Don Lucia's Gophers reached the NCAA title game before losing 7-4 to the Union (N.Y.) Fighting Grandpas.
The results were less impressive over the next four seasons, and no-shows started to turn to no-buyers. The excuse offered by former attendees was a loathing for the Big Ten and a longing for the rivalries of the WCHA.
Apparently, there were thousands of potential ticket buyers who would have flocked to see Omaha but had no interest in Ohio State.
Lucia was preceded for 14 seasons by Doug Woog, one of the more fun-loving authority figures you could ever encounter — until wounded those last few years when results waned and criticism gained volume.
Lucia won back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003, and we started hearing howls from the hardcores about him not doing it again. I dealt with him only in tiny increments but found the Don to be dead serious at the start and immune to the heat and humorous closer to the end.
Athletic director Mark Coyle and Lucia announced the coach's retirement on March 20, 2018. St. Cloud State's Bob Motzko was announced as the new coach on March 27, which was Motzko's 57th birthday.
Attendance had fallen to a point Motzko didn't have to feel guilty over empty sections for home games. Still, there was nothing quite as depressing for Ski U Mah-ers as a two-game playoff series vs. Michigan hosted by the Gophers a few years back.
This week, Motzko and the Gophers had finished practice and he mentioned enthusiastically the rapidity with which Saturday night's Big Ten championship game with Michigan had sold out.
"I got a couple of calls on Sunday for tickets and said, 'I'll call the ticket office on Monday morning,' " Motzko said. "I did that and was told, 'It's already sold out.' The internet makes buying quick. People were on their phones in the arena grabbing tickets before Saturday's game with Michigan State was over, I was told."
Which led me to ask for details on the aforementioned Michigan playoff series "that had crowds of 2,000?"
Motzko: "It was at end of my first season, 2019, and it wasn't 2,000."
He was correct. Tickets purchased for those two games were 1,835 and 1,911.
At the time, Motzko was saying fans would be back when the Gophers gave them a good reason.
Add up the flagging attendance for college athletics around the country, two years of COVID-19 disruptions and the ongoing nonsense about missing the WCHA, and many of us didn't envision Gophers hockey returning to the days when tickets were coveted.
But then came the winter of 2022-23, and many good reasons to be back in the arena, and we have the head coach needing to pull strings to get tickets six days before the game. Reasons such as:
- The Gophers will be the No. 1 national seed with a win vs. Michigan, and might even stay there with a loss.
- The wise hockey observer, J.J. Zulgad, has declared the Gophers' top line of Logan Cooley centering Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud to be the best in the Twin Cities — NHLers included.
- "What has made our team very good is the defense," Motzko said. "Brock Faber leads the way. He's our captain. I was here as an assistant in 2002 when we won it, and Jordan Leopold was the best captain a hockey team could have. I put Faber in the same category. You know what Brock is? Our version of an All-American linebacker."
Motzko said it is a strong possibility the Gophers' top seven defensemen will play in the NHL.
Faber will be there in April when signed by the Wild. Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson are seniors and also NHL-bound. Junior Mike Koster is a contender, and freshmen Luke Mittelstadt, Ryan Chesley and Cal Thomas are next in line.
The discussion moved elsewhere and then Motzko went back:
"Mittelstadt … he gets lost in the conversation, but that guy is so competitive, and wicked smart. He doesn't get beat."
The Gophers will lose Faber, LaCombe, Johnson, Knies, perhaps Cooley and a couple of others for next season.
There will be plenty of talent coming back, and the standouts keep coming in, such as:
The "electric" center Oliver Moore leading the 2023-24 recruits, and a verbal commitment from Cole Eiserman, a forward from the Boston area projected to be the No. 2 selection in the 2024 NHL draft.
Grab hold of those tickets.
Gophers hockey madness is back, against what seemed long odds when fewer than 2,000 showed up for those playoff games with Michigan.