University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Centennial on Ice

The Gopher's mens' hockey team celebrates 100 years. Here's a look back at some highlights.

Fans fill Mariucci Arena in 1960.
All photos courtesy University Athletics

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.)

Team practice in 1929.

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.

Minnesota’s “Godfather of Hockey," John Mariucci, with players.

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.”

The Gophers celebrate on the ice at the Xcel Energy Center after winning the 2002 NCAA Championship, their first title since 1979.

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.

Blake McLaughlin scored twice in Minnesota’s 10-2 rout of Arizona State on January 22 this year.

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.

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