Senior class to be remembered

Don Lucia’s first class of recruits has helped return the program to the forefront.

Lou Raguse

Against St. Cloud State on March 13, Minnesota men’s hockey senior Troy Riddle flipped the puck into the net in the third period to earn a hat trick.

Fans at Mariucci Arena accordingly littered the ice with hats to honor Riddle’s feat.

After the Gophers celebrated their WCHA first-round sweep with a center-ice stick salute, Riddle, Grant Potulny, Matt Koalska, Jon Waibel and Joey Martin took center ice together for one final ovation at home.

And if there were any fans still wearing hats at that point, they likely tipped them to the seniors.

In four seasons for the Gophers, those five players have amassed 113 wins, won two straight national championships and re-established Minnesota as a premier colleg hockey program.

Coach Don Lucia had one word to describe how he’ll remember his first recruiting class as head coach Minnesota: winning.

The seniors said they will remember much more than what they’ve accomplished on the ice.

Four years ago, they came to Minnesota as former opponents, acquaintances or just reputable names. Now, as they near the end of their Minnesota careers, they will part ways as brothers.

“Looking back, these are the best guys I’ve ever been in contact with,” Potulny said. “They’re going to be the guys I keep in touch with for the rest of my life.”

Riddle added: “It’s kind of scary how close we are.”

Before their freshman year, Potulny and Riddle became friends while rooming together for a two-week all-star hockey tournament.

Riddle had already signed with the Gophers, while Potulny was still deciding.

The next time the two met as opponents was at a face-off dot in the United States Hockey League. With Potulny inked to play for Minnesota, Riddle gave him a big smile.

The classmates got together for the first week of workouts, and between staying at Koalska’s parents’ house, tailgating at Vikings games and goofing off in the dorms, the players began to bond.

“Right away, we gave each other nicknames,” Waibel said. “Grant’s ‘Pops,’ Koalska’s ‘Dooley,’ Riddle’s ‘Sherman Riddsy’ and Joey’s ‘Dirte.’ “

Waibel said he’s called “Marble, Bobble, or Waibs,” and former classmate Paul Martin is “Pistol.”

The seniors don’t reminisce about their class for long without mentioning Paul Martin, who opted for the NHL after last season.

Paul Martin still catches some games on television and, despite his successful professional season, said he misses skating with Potulny, Koalska, Riddle, Waibel and Joey Martin.

After the nicknames came the wins. From their first game on the ice together as freshmen, the classmates clicked.

Playing at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul against Notre Dame on Oct. 7, 2000, Koalska scored on his first shift in a Gophers jersey. Potulny and Riddle also added goals and Minnesota won 7-4.

By the end of their sophomore year, Koalska and Potulny were scoring goals in the national championship.

Waibel notched one the following year, when they successfully defended the title.

Still, the seniors all agreed that in the future, while taking trips down memory lane, it’s the off-ice experiences that they’ll chat about most.

And the senior salute at center ice gave the players a sneak preview of the emotions they’ll face when this season comes to a close.

The crowd noise rose as Koalska, who says he lives to hear the “Minnesota Rouser,” stood near Riddle, who had just finished a nine-point weekend. Joey Martin, who knocked opposing players around for the whole series, lined up by Waibel, the hard-working fan favorite. And next to them was Potulny, of clutch-goal fame.

“I almost lost it right there,” Riddle said afterward.

Years from now, fans at Mariucci Arena will need only to look to the rafters to remember what Potulny, Riddle, Koalska, Waibel and Joey Martin meant to the Minnesota men’s hockey program. And to those players, that’s the greatest accomplishment of all.

Potulny summed it up well: “I want people to say, ‘Those guys brought this program back to where it should be. They started a great tradition and brought Minnesota hockey back to the top of America – where it deserves to be.’ “