Return of Potulny adds vigor, leadership to Gophers on ice

Adam Fink

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team gathered at center ice last Wednesday to stretch before concluding practice.

Off to the side of the ice, Grant Potulny watched the Gophers before heading to the corner to work individually on his skating and puck handling.

As he passed center ice, Potulny was teased by his teammates for having extra practice.

The Gophers captain couldn’t ask for anything better.

“It felt great to be out there,” Potulny said.

Potulny – who scored the winning goal in the NCAA Championship game nine months ago and was expected to lead this year’s team – suffered a fractured ankle and ligament damage to his left leg in the season opener Oct. 12.

The injury has kept Potulny’s impact on and off the ice to a minimum thus far this season.

All of that changed last week.

The junior suited up for practice for the first time Jan 15. He skated with his teammates in drills, practiced the power play and joked around with his teammates.

And with No. 18 expected to return to the ice this weekend against Minnesota State-Mankato, the Gophers have their locker room leader and clutch performer ready to step into the role he began carving out for himself last season.

“Anytime someone comes back from injury, it is going to be a lift for the team,” the Grand Forks, N.D., native said. “I want to help the team get on a roll.”

In addition, watching the Gophers on television or from the press box has given Potulny a sense of what needs to improve.

At times this season Minnesota has looked like defending national champions, defeating then top-ranked North Dakota on Jan. 11.

At other moments, it looks like a team with 17 underclassmen. For example, Minnesota allowed St. Cloud State to score twice in the final nine minutes of the Huskies 4-3 comeback win Jan. 3.

“We need to play harder,” Potulny said. “I am going to give an honest effort and I expect everyone else to also.”

It’s that truthfulness and demeanor which has earned Potulny the respect of his teammates and coaching staff. It was also a trait missed during his absence.

“This is Grant’s team,” said alternate captain Paul Martin. “He stays focused, relaxed and can get us on a roll. He was voted captain for a reason.

“I am excited for him to return.”

Potulny’s leadership has never been questioned. However, his ability on the ice for the next few weeks might raise the eyebrows of some who expect immediate results.

Over the past two seasons, Potulny has tallied 67 points, including 24 power-play goals.

“Anytime you get your captain back and a player of Grant’s stature, your team is going to improve and respond to that,” coach Don Lucia said. “But it takes some time to get your hands and feet back. His conditioning has been decent.”

Potulny is the first to realize the truth in Lucia’s statement. The 22-year-old has not set any goals and is taking one day at a time.

However, time away from the team has made Potulny realize how his influence can extend beyond the ice.

It also made him understand how valuable he can be when he is around the Gophers.

“I want to be around the team on a daily basis,” Potulny said. “We are as good as anyone when we play well. I just want to try and lead by example.”