Captain honors next in long line of accolades for juniors

by David La Vaque

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team, widely regarded a flagship college hockey program, is currently rudderless.

The defending national champions conducted captain’s practice on Monday afternoon though captains are yet to be named.

One sure bet is junior wing Grant Potulny. The North Dakotan served as the lone alternate captain last season and proved his worth on and off the rink. Potulny was named MVP of the Frozen Four while providing a vocal presence in the locker room.

Joining Potulny will undoubtedly be one of his fellow juniors. The smart money is on Matt Koalska, whose preseason cabin retreats helped the Gophers gel prior to this season and last.

The third captaincy could go to scrappy forward Nick Anthony – one of three seniors on the team – or All-American defenseman-in-waiting Paul Martin, another junior. Coach Don Lucia said a decision will be made this week.

Should Koalska and Martin join Potulny, Lucia’s first Minnesota class will continue to put the program’s fortunes on its back. From impact freshmen to sweater letter-bearers, the class of 2004 must set and score the majority of Minnesota’s goals this season.

“I was talking to Grant the other day about this,” Koalska said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago we were freshmen sitting in the back row. Now we have to lead the way.”

Koalska and his contemporaries will represent at least two-thirds of Minnesota’s official leadership this season, a responsibility they’ve been groomed to fulfill.

This year’s juniors served notice to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association promptly. Potulny, Martin and Troy Riddle were named to the conference All-Rookie Team. Last season, Koalska and Potulny were two of Minnesota’s most important playoff performers.

The class learned a sense of urgency, watching Erik Westrum’s senior class return Minnesota to its first NCAA tournament appearance in four years. The class learned about consistency last season, helping the Gophers title team never suffer defeat in consecutive games.

Leadership will be critical this season for a team with three seniors, 10 upperclassmen and 18 underclassmen.

“People will be skeptical about this team coming in,” Martin said. “But this year’s freshmen are better than we were and they look like they’ll prove themselves well.”

The Red Line Report ranked Minnesota’s rookie class, headlined by forwards Thomas Vanek and Gino Guyer, No. 1 in the nation. Not even this year’s juniors were that highly regarded.

Whether or not the fresh faces produce at the same level remains to be seen. Two years ago, Lucia gave Koalska, Potulny, Riddle, Martin and Jon Waibel large amounts of ice time and the group responded by leading all WCHA freshman in scoring.

Once upon a time, Lucia’s debut class fueled Minnesota’s return to respectability. And now, the class forced to grow up quickly must keep a rejuvenated program on the tracks.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Martin said. “I don’t know if we have a Johnny, a Jeff or a Jordan yet.”

No, Minnesota does not have the nation’s scoring leader, its leader in goals and a Hobey Baker blueliner.

But the Gophers have Koalska, Martin, Riddle and Potulny – and history shows that isn’t a bad place to start.