Centennial on Ice
The Gopher's mens' hockey team celebrates 100 years. Here's a look back at some highlights.
Dan Wehage remembers the day
he became a Gopher hockey fan:
April 2, 1989. A recent Twin City
transplant from Fargo, he bought a
ticket on the street for the NCAA
championship game. Inside, he felt
the electric buzz in the old Civic
Center. It intensified through three
periods that ended tied 3-3 and
into overtime, when Randy Skarda’s
wrist shot beat the goaltender but
clanked off the pipe and Harvard
scored minutes later. “I can still
hear the crossbar,” Wehage says.
“Even though the Gophers lost
that game, I got hooked.”
He’s not alone. No other team
has borne Minnesota’s identity
longer, represented the University
to the nation as prominently, or
enjoyed success in the way the
Golden Gophers men’s hockey
team has—developing its fan base
over 100 years.
They’ve won seven national
championships (including five
NCAA titles in 1974, 1976, 1979,
2002, and 2003); sent legions of
players to the NHL (18 played at
hockey’s highest level last season
and 10 alumni have their names
engraved on the Stanley Cup);
stocked the U.S. national team
rosters, including those that won
Olympic gold medals in 1960 and
1980; and produced four Hobey
Baker Award winners (Neal Broten,
Robb Stauber, Brian Bonin [B.S.
’04] and Jordan Leopold [B.S. ’07]).
Since the University granted ice hockey varsity status in 1921, the team has become “the heartbeat of the
state,” as Athletic Director Mark Coyle says. In 2020-21,
the team’s centennial season, the University will honor
its 100 best players and coaches, plus ask fans to select
an All-Century team. (This year’s team started the
season in inspired fashion, winning their first 10 games
to briefly rank No. 1 in the nation.)
Good from their inception, the Gophers won their
first national title, bestowed by the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association and shared with Yale, in
1929. The second came in 1939-40 from the American
Athletic Union during an undefeated season with one
of the greatest Gopher teams of all time, starring All-Americans Harold Paulsen and Captain John Mariucci.
After playing at various venues, such as the state
fairgrounds Hippodrome, the old Minneapolis Arena,
and an outdoor rink on campus, the Gophers were
finally able to play on their own indoor ice when the
remodeled Williams Arena opened in February 1950.
John Mayasich, the Eveleth high school sensation,
showed up two seasons later, in 1951-52, entertaining
the Gopher faithful for four years while he racked up a
school record 298 points (which comes out to an eyepopping 2.7 points per game).
Mariucci, another Eveleth native, took over as coach
for Mayasich’s sophomore year and elevated the
program, taking the team to two national championship
finals, which included a heartbreaking loss to the underdog (New York) Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Bachelors in 1954.
Mariucci earned his nickname as Minnesota’s “Godfather of Hockey” for the way he boosted attendance—in
1953-54 the Gophers led the nation with 103,000 fans
attending 18 home games—and promoted the development of youth hockey to fill his college roster during 13
seasons as coach. But he inspired even deeper respect
among his players. “He was like a Roman god,” says Dick
Meredith (B.S. ’57), a Gophers forward for four seasons.
Fittingly, Williams was renamed for Mariucci in 1985,
and so was the new arena built across the street in 1993.
Lou Nanne—an All-American who played for Mariucci
from 1960-63, then 10 seasons with the NHL North
Stars before becoming their general manager—credits
Mariucci for much of his success. “He made me what I
am,” Nanne says. “He was like a dad to me. I loved him.”
Glen Sonmor replaced Mariucci in 1966 and took the
Gophers on a Cinderella run to the NCAA finals in 1971,
where they lost to Boston University 4-2. He left early
the following season to coach the Minnesota Fighting
Saints in the upstart World Hockey Association. Ken
Yackel Sr., who had been an All-American Gopher
defenseman in 1954, took over, but the program was
in such disarray that rumors swirled the school would
shut it down. Enter Herb Brooks for the 1972-73 season.
Brooks, who played for the Gophers from 1955-59
and graduated with a psychology major, quickly
established a dynasty with three national titles in
six years and a second-place finish in 1975. The 1976
campaign was most notable for the semifinal game
against Boston University, which quickly—after only 68
seconds—broke out into a bench-clearing, half-hour
brawl that was squelched only by turning out the arena
lights. Terriers coach Jack Parker bitterly accused
Brooks of orchestrating the fight, which resulted in the
ejection of BU’s top scorer and a Gopher victory.
At the start of the 1978-79 season, Brooks, who usually
cast his team as underdogs, proclaimed the Gophers
would win the national title, which put tremendous
pressure on one of Minnesota’s most talented teams—a
group that included eight players who would win gold for
Brooks the following winter in Lake Placid. With them,
Brooks implemented the European style of weaving and
cycling that baffled opponents. His players respected his
knowledge of the game and ability to manipulate them
to play their best, though they didn’t necessarily like
him for it. “Herbie would find where your edge was
and push you right to that edge,” says goalie Steve
Janaszak, who was the 1979 NCAA tournament MVP.
The final against North Dakota, who had edged the
Gophers for the WCHA title in the last weekend of the regular season, provided the opportunity for revenge
in an outing best remembered for the game-winning
goal by Roseau freshman Neal Broten. Halfway
through the third period, a falling Broten chipped the
puck over the pads of the goalie who had come out
to challenge him. Almost 40 years later, in the 2007
WCHA title final, also against North Dakota, Blake
Wheeler replicated the play: Tripped by a defender, in
mid-flight he swatted at the puck with one hand to beat
the goaltender and win the game in overtime.
Doug Woog (B.S. ’67), an All-American center at the
U of M in 1965, became the coach in 1985. Recruiting
exclusively from within the border became harder
during his 14 seasons, when the number of Minnesota
Division I hockey programs doubled from two (UM
and UMD) to four (St. Cloud, Mankato, and Bemidji
State came in 1999 to make it five). Woog’s loyalty to
homegrown talent may have kept him from winning a
national title, though from 1985-1999, his teams made
six NCAA Frozen Four appearances and compiled a
388-187-40 record, a .662 winning percentage besting
both Brooks (.624) and Mariucci (.584).
But in his debut season, Woog encountered
resistance from the team’s top player, senior Pat
Micheletti, whose older brothers Joe and Don had
both won national championships with the Gophers.
The youngest Micheletti, who had scored 48 goals the
previous season, had been moping and not scoring.
The two had it out in Woog’s office mid-December, with
Woog providing an attitude correction. Prior to the
meeting, Micheletti had scored seven goals; afterward,
he scored 25. “He won my respect that day,” Micheletti
says. “He had a good way of reading people’s personalities and dealing with them.”
Don Lucia, who succeeded Woog in 1999-2000,
broke ranks by recruiting outside the state, with two of
his prospects restoring national champion status to the
program. Through more than six decades in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, from 1951-2013,
the Gophers developed their most intense rivalry with the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. So it
was ironic that a kid from North Dakota,
sophomore Grant Potulny (B.S. ’04)—the
only non-Minnesotan on the Gophers
since 1987—banged in a rebound during
overtime of the 2002 NCAA final against
the University of Maine at the Xcel
Energy Center to give the Gophers their
first national title in 23 years.
The next season, freshman Thomas
Vanek, an Austrian, scored the overtime
goal in the semifinal on April 10, 2003, against Michigan.
Two days later, with the score tied 1-1 in the third period
against the University of New Hampshire, Vanek (the
eventual tournament MVP) scored what became the
game-winner in a 5-1 victory to give Minnesota its first
ever back-to-back national championships in hockey.
The Gophers added another chapter to their storied
rivalry with North Dakota on February 2, 2008, when a
fight broke out in the traditional postgame handshake
line. An 8-year-old hockey player from Edina at Mariucci that evening watched his favorite Gopher, Blake
Wheeler, go at it with one of the Fighting Sioux. Today,
he counts that as one of his most vivid memories of
Gopher hockey—a history he, as the returning captain
of the Gophers in their 100th season, carries forward.
“It’s an honor to wear the ‘C,’ given the tradition,” says
Sammy Walker. “I’m proud to be a Gopher.”
John Rosengren is a Pulitzer-nominated freelance writer in Minneapolis.