n Berg returns to lineup for U hockey

by Michael Rand

It was about 2:20 Wednesday afternoon, and the Gophers hockey team’s locker room was filled with the usual combination of music and background chatter.
The players had most of their gear on and were almost ready to hit the ice. Some players watched a game from this season between Wisconsin and St. Cloud State.
After a couple of minutes, Minnesota coach Doug Woog decided to sketch out a power play diagram on the locker room’s dry-erase board. He jotted down a few things he noticed when he was watching the Gophers/Minnesota-Duluth series on television last weekend.
Then several players noticed freshman Mike Lyons wasn’t at the impromptu meeting — he was out warming up goalie Steve DeBus, as a player normally does before practice.
But Woog — in charge of his third practice since serving a one-week suspension — lightened up the locker room mood at the rookie’s expense. After junior Casey Hankinson fetched Lyons from the ice, Woog went on a tirade worthy of an Oscar.
“Where the hell were you?” Woog demanded of the freshman.
Lyons, obviously shaken, told the coach he was just out shooting.
Woog then threw his marker across the locker room in mock disgust.
The locker room remained quiet for a couple of seconds, but it was a thin silence, not a nervous one.
The explosions of laughter that followed were led by sophomore Reggie Berg who, even a minute later, wasn’t ready to stop laughing.
“(Woog) is hilarious,” was all Berg could manage.
That’s all he needed to say.
On second review there were two things unusual about the locker room scene on Wednesday, at least compared to the Wednesday a week before: Woog was back in full force, and Berg could laugh and feel like one of the guys again.
Berg, who scored 23 goals as a freshman last year, broke his ankle in August while playing for the U.S. Select Team. A summer of hard work that was supposed to pay off right away was put on hold.
He has put in countless hours of rehab and, until Monday, he practiced with the team while wearing the dreaded red cross jersey. Players who wear the jersey can only participate in non-contact drills so they don’t risk further injury.
Starting this week, Berg’s ankle was healed enough that he could put on his regular jersey. He’s getting set to make his season debut on Friday at Wisconsin. The Anoka native has the look of a player who doesn’t just want to play — he needs to play.
“I feel better every day,” Berg said with a wide smile. “You get sick of sitting around doing rehab. The toughest thing was just sitting there and watching the games.”
Likewise, Woog had an extra smile or two on Wednesday. He’s always been known for his locker room antics, but the marker toss took even a few veterans by surprise.
Part of his good mood comes simply from being back. The other part comes from having his top returning goal scorer — and admittedly one of his favorite players — back at the same time.
“You can see that I’ve got a twinkle in my eye talking about him,” Woog said. “He said to me this week, `I’m coming back when you’re coming back.’ We’ve had some fun with that one.”
But opposing teams might not have much fun defending Minnesota’s first line.
This weekend, Berg will center that line, Erik Rasmussen will stay at left wing and Ryan Kraft, who filled in at center while Berg was injured, will slide over to right wing. Those three players combined for 52 goals and 67 assists last season.
In Berg’s absence, the Gophers scored 14 goals in four games — more than a goal less than they averaged last year.
“We’ve definitely missed him a lot,” Rasmussen said. “He’s a natural goal scorer. It’s great to have him back.”
Kraft added, “Reggie and I have always played well together. This week in practice we just picked up where we left off last year.”
Looking around the locker room, though, it was clear that no one was happier than Berg.
“Wisconsin has been a great rivalry for years,” he said. “But for me, I wouldn’t care if we were playing at Alaska. I’m just glad to be back.”

Note: Freshman Rico Pagel, who hasn’t played this season because of a shoulder injury, is also expected to make his debut this weekend.