Searching for a reason behind U’s hockey woes

Gophers’ back-to-back titles seven years ago parallel Florida’s basketball team.

by Josh Katzenstein

For anyone who follows hockey, the apparent fall of the Minnesota menâÄôs team became all too real this year. The end of the 2009-10 season saw the Gophers miss a second-straight NCAA tournament. They had their first losing campaign in Don LuciaâÄôs 11 seasons as head coach. WhatâÄôs most shocking about MinnesotaâÄôs recent tumble is not one, not two but three teams within the state of Minnesota have surpassed the Gophers. Drink that in for a second. The Gophers finished the season 18-19-2, the fourth-best record of any Division I team based in Minnesota. Western Collegiate Hockey Association foes St. Cloud State (24-14-5) and Minnesota-Duluth (22-17-1) both had better records and earned home ice for the first round of the WCHA tournament. Bemidji State, which plays in the College Hockey America conference, amassed a record of 23-10-4. During SaturdayâÄôs NCAA West Regional championship between Wisconsin and St. Cloud State, players originally from Minnesota scored five of the eight goals (two of WisconsinâÄôs five and all three of St. Cloud StateâÄôs). The four responsible players scored those goals with hopes of earning a spot in the Frozen Four, and for some reason they did not play for the Gophers. Now I wonâÄôt delve into any supposed recruiting problems Minnesota faces, because the GophersâÄô talent level is incredibly high (Nick Leddy and Jordan Schroeder were both first-round picks in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft). But I spent all of Monday morning looking for a way to analyze what Minnesota has done since winning back-to-back NCAA championships in 2002 and 2003. The best comparison I could find came from a different sport: menâÄôs basketball. Florida won consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007, but what have the Gators done since? If you guessed, âÄúNothing, just like the Gophers menâÄôs hockey team,âÄù youâÄôre right. Of course, there are varying degrees of nothing. The Gophers reached the Frozen Four in 2005. But for being the biggest school in the most densely populated area of the State of Hockey, expectations run high for the Gophers. And when the team doesnâÄôt make the Frozen Four every year, it comes as a shock. Before you shake off the idea that the Gators basketball team and Gophers hockey team are comparable, let me throw a few notes at you. Each has a coach who has led his team to three national semifinals. Both coaches have been in place for more than a decade (FloridaâÄôs Billy Donovan since 1996, Lucia since 1999). Both managed to win back-to-back titles. And both, apparently, are not the best teams in their respective state year after year (but I think the bragging rights are worth more in Minnesota). Since both teams accomplished the unthinkable task of earning consecutive titles, both have been expected to contend in the NCAA tournament. But that hasnâÄôt been the case. Why? Nobody really knows, but I think it may have something to do with the âÄúweâÄôve done this beforeâÄù mindset. ItâÄôs something I call the 2009-10 UCLA menâÄôs basketball syndrome. The Bruins were terrible this season despite having the No. 9 recruiting class in 2009, according to UCLA ought to contend for a title year in and year out. Something about the tradition should draw the best out of players. A 14-18 overall record this season proved that even the Bruins struggle to produce. The Gophers and Gators do not have the illustrious histories of UCLA basketball, but winning back-to-back championships ought to be enough to bring in talent. Since 2007, Florida recruiting classes have earned top-15 rankings from Rivals. The last recruiting ranking I could find for hockey is from 2008, when Inside College Hockey ranked the GophersâÄô class second in the nation. Clearly, getting the talent isnâÄôt a problem for these two programs. But the combination of developing that talent and getting everyone on the same page is. DonovanâÄôs and LuciaâÄôs jobs are safe, but when the most talented teams canâÄôt prove why they earned that title, shouldnâÄôt some of the blame be directed toward the coach?