Men’s hockey says hello to new faces, prepare for Sioux

by Brian Stensaas

Coach Don Lucia and the members of the Minnesota men’s hockey team have been waiting a long time for this – an official return to the ice six long months after a 5-4 loss to Maine in the NCAA East Regional last March.

The Gophers officially kick off the 2001-02 season at Mariucci Arena on Friday with the team’s first practice. It will be the first of six practices before Lucia and his assistants begin putting together line charts Monday for Minnesota’s exhibition game Oct. 5 at North Dakota.

“We’ll do a lot of switching around the first few days to see who fits well with who,” Lucia said. “We know (Friday) all the freshmen will be nervous. (Assistant coach) Mike (Guentzel) and I were talking about how nervous we were for those first few practices in college, and it’s no different now.”

The Gophers are about one week behind the Sioux. North Dakota began practice last Monday and plays its first game Friday night against Manitoba.

And of course, next Friday’s game marks the first played in the new 11,400-seat Ralph Engelstad Arena, the talk of the town in Grand Forks. And that is just fine with Lucia.

“I want to throw our guys into a very difficult environment,” he said. “Anytime you can throw your kids in a difficult environment like that it is good for them. They won’t be in a more difficult situation all year.”

Lucia – beginning his third campaign with Minnesota and his 14th season overall as a head coach – said he will not judge any player solely based on his performance at North Dakota.

With a roster including nine freshmen and six sophomores, Lucia plans to give ice time to as many players as possible in the five games prior to the WCHA opener against Michigan Tech in Houghton, Mich., on Nov. 2-3.

“Ice time will be based on merit,” Lucia said. “We know about five guys who are key players up front and we have a pretty good idea who our four key defensemen will be. Now it’s a matter of how to place everybody else together.”

The Gophers will most likely go with four lines to begin the year before trimming down to a three-line format in the latter portion of the season.