MINNEAPOLIS — There was no social distancing on the NHL-size ice sheet of Ridder Arena on a sunny Monday morning. While members of the Minnesota Gophers have been skating together and working out together for months, this day marked their first “real” practice of a 2021-22 season for which hopes, and expectations, could hardly be higher.
Leaving the ice when the hard skating was done, Gophers coach Bob Motzko remarked that his may be the last team in the country to start practice, as some conference rivals have been at it for a few weeks already. But that has been normal during Motzko’s previous three seasons at the helm in Minneapolis.
Returning nearly all of their defense, much of their scoring and the nation’s top goaltender from a team that won the Big Ten Tournament and finished a win shy of the Frozen Four last season would be enough to instill excitement in the Gophers hockey fan base — almost all of which had to watch last season’s 24 wins (which were the most in college hockey) on TV due to the pandemic. But the handful of folks watching Monday’s practice — held at the women’s hockey venue while the recently-installed ice at 3M Arena at Mariucci hardened for another day or two — were fixated on the new guys.
Barring an injury to goalie Jack LaFontaine, who won the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top puck-stopper last spring, you won’t see much of freshman goalie Brennan Boynton on the ice this season. The defense will look almost identical to the six or seven guys that usually manned the blue line last season. But with the departures of forwards Sampo Ranta, Scott Reedy and Brannon McManus, the Gophers lost one-third of the 117 goals they scored last season. Hence the attention to the new puck-movers in maroon and gold.
In an ideal world, you ease into your role on a new team. For these Gophers, newcomers like Grant Cruikshank, Chaz Lucius, Aaron Huglen and Tristan Broz are already being talked about as potential, and vital, sources of offense on a team with designs on its first Frozen Four trip since 2014.
“It definitely hurts when we lose guys like Ranta, Reedy and McManus who got on the scoreboard and were in big roles for us,” said Sammy Walker, the senior forward who is one of the team’s three captains. “But I think with the guys we’ve got coming in and what they can do for us, it’s exciting.”
Walker was drenched in sweat by the time the team left the ice after 90 minutes and told a gaggle of reporters that even after skating most days in the summer and in Da Beauty League, there was some heavy breathing with the coaches running practice for the first time.
“We’ve got to play our game and play with speed and in order to do that, we’ve got to get in shape right now. That’s why the first practice was kind of a tough one,” Walker said of the strenuous practice. “I don’t think I’ve seen that in my four years, but we needed it and it’s just exciting to be back on the ice with these guys.”
The Gophers open the season at home on Saturday, Oct. 2 versus Alaska.