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Hockey Gophers are in a deep hole

Jan. 7, 2008

by Matt Kane

Remember the Gopher hockey team’s loss to Holy Cross in the first round of the 2006 NCAA tournament? Saturday’s (Dec. 29) loss to the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is certainly a comparable loss for the struggling Gophers.

The game was at Mariucci Arena and was supposed to be a cupcake win that would get the Gophers into the championship game of their own Dodge Holiday Classic. The Gophers had won the tournament the past eight seasons, and should have been on their way to winning it again.

That didn’t happen. Boston College went on to claim the title with a 6-0 win over RIT Sunday, while the Gophers needed a goal in a shootout to claim the consolation trophy over Air Force. Minnesota and Air Force skated to a 2-2 tie in regulation.

What makes the loss to RIT hurt is that RIT doesn’t have one scholarship athlete on its team. So, basically, RIT gets its players from a pool of all players who were not recruited and signed by any of the other universities around the country. Otherwise, RIT’s hockey players actually enrolled in college to learn.

The Gophers, by comparison, seem to get almost anybody and everybody they want.

RIT plays in the Atlantic Hockey conference, where it is 5-4-3, and 7-7-3 overall. Air Force sits atop the conference with a 7-4-3 record, and is 9-5-4 overall. And look who sits in seventh place in the Atlantic Hockey conference. It’s Minnesota’s old friend, Holy Cross (4-3-3, 5-4-6).

The video clip of Holy Cross defeating the Gophers 4-3 in overtime of the 2006 Western Region semifinals can be seen on YouTube.com. The play-by-play announcer mentions that it might be the biggest upset in NCAA hockey history, and it may have been. But, remember, that loss came in the national championship tournament at Ralph Engelstad Arena on the University of North Dakota campus, so Holy Cross had to be a decent team just to make it that far.

The fact that the game against Holy Cross was played in front of thousands of Sioux-turned-Crusaders fans made things even worse for the Gophers.

We don’t yet know how RIT will finish the season, but, according to how the Gophers have been looking before the new year (9-9-2 record), there is a good chance Minnesota won’t sniff the NCAA tournament this year.

If I remember correctly, Minnesota did turn up its play after the break last season, but this year seems different.

The issue with Kyle Okposo leaving for the New York Islanders midway through the season, and then Okposo’s new boss, Garth Snow, ridiculing Don Lucia for his inability to get players ready for the NHL seemed to float a black cloud over what we thought was a well-respected Gopher hockey program.

Personally, I think Snow used Lucia as a scapegoat for Okposo’s subpar season (7 goals, 4 assists in 18 games). Nobody was complaining when Lucia led the Gophers to back-to-back NCAA championships in the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons.

But that’s how it goes in sports. It’s the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league.

If the Gophers turn things around and storm through the 2008 portion of the schedule, Lucia will be a genius for turning things around, and the 2007 portion of the schedule will be nothing more than a hiccup.

I’m not the biggest Gopher fan — give me St. Cloud State — but I do enjoy watching Gopher hockey games, and there is no better hockey building than Mariucci Arena.

Of course Mariucci is much more enjoyable when the Gophers are winning.

In the recent past, it was the Gopher hockey team that got Minnesotans through the long winters after the Timberwolves and Wild tailed off. By the looks of things, we might need the Gophers again.