U hockey might be lost in Woods

Michael Rand

Thirty minutes after leading his players through an afternoon practice, Gophers hockey coach Doug Woog traded in his skates for cross-trainers and headed for the Mariucci Arena exercise room located far above the building’s ice sheet.
Woog carefully examined the exercise bikes, seeking out the one he had previously ridden. At about the same time Woog found his stationary machine, Gophers assistant Mike Guentzel appeared and climbed aboard the stair-stepper next to him.
Guentzel began reading a newspaper as he worked out and, about a minute later, glanced over toward Woog.
“How would you like to be Tiger Woods?” Guentzel offered to Woog.
“No,” the coach responded immediately. Then, a couple of seconds and thoughts later, again, “no.”
The assistant simply turned and marveled at the 20-year-old golf prodigy: “That guy is incredible.”
On a much smaller level, this year’s version of the Gophers hockey team is comparable to Woods.
There’s no doubt about the talent in either case.
But when Woods, the winner of three consecutive U.S. Amateur Tournaments, turned pro recently, questions immediately popped up.
Was he old enough?
Could he handle the pressure?
The same holds true for the Gophers. Incoming freshmen such as Dave Spehar and Ben Clymer had unbelievable high school careers.
High school, however, is not college. The U.S. Amateur is not the PGA tour.
Perhaps Woog saw these parallels when he responded to Guentzel’s question so emphatically.
With 10 seniors gone from last year’s team, the Gophers coach has one of his youngest squads ever. He knows he’ll be leaning on his newcomers more than he needed to in past seasons.
Looking at the Gophers position-by-position, there’s no doubt they underwent a big change. Minnesota had a 30-10-2 record last season. Can this year’s squad keep pace?
“Time will tell,” Woog said.
The Gophers lost Jeff Moen (15-3-2, 2.59 goals against average), who split time with returning starter Steve DeBus (15-7, 2.88) last season. DeBus will likely have several series in which he starts both games, something he rarely did last season.
Freshman Erik Day will be the No. 2 guy and will probably start one out of every three or four games.
It may take the Gophers’ offense a little while to gel, meaning much of the team’s early-season fortunes lie on Debus’ shoulders.
The junior said he is ready to be the Gophers’ much-needed stopper. Woog also exhibited tremendous confidence in his netminder, saying goalie is one position he is not concerned about.
The losses of Dan Trebil, Greg Zwakman and Charlie Wasley left the Gophers thin on experienced defensemen.
It’s doubtful the rest of the WCHA will send sympathy cards to Woog, however, as Minnesota still has Hobey Baker finalist Mike Crowley, Brian LaFleur, Jason Godbout and a host of others who are more than capable of filling out the lineup.
Sophomore Bill Kohn and freshmen Ben Clymer and Ryan Trebil (Dan’s brother) will have significant roles this season.
“We need at least two freshmen to step in pretty early on and give us a good, consistent effort on defense,” Woog said. “I think that’s possible.”
When asked how a team can make up for the loss of Brian Bonin and the 81 points he scored last season, Woog had a simple reply: “I don’t know.”
To make matters worse, Reggie Berg, who scored 23 goals as a freshman last season, is still recovering from a broken ankle he suffered this summer and won’t return for a couple of weeks.
Sophomore Erik Rasmussen (48 points last year), juniors Ryan Kraft (37) and Casey Hankinson (35), and senior Nick Checco (19) are the team’s top healthy scoring threats returning to the front line.
Despite having 37 points last season, Kraft’s production decreased by nine points from his freshman season. As the team’s likely first-line center, he will be looked upon to increase his scoring total.
“Kraft is going to step it up this year,” Crowley said. “He could have filled the role last year, but we didn’t need him to.”
Woog said he is looking for sophomores Mike Anderson and Wyatt Smith to increase their productivity. Senior Dan Woog and freshman Dave Spehar are also potential double-digit goal scorers.
And don’t forget: Minnesota’s top returning scorer isn’t even a forward — it’s Crowley, who notched 63 points last year.
Season outlook
The Gophers have gone to 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments and plan on continuing the trend this year.
Minnesota will put the puck in the net, but it won’t happen as much as last year, at least early in the season. Instead, the team will rely on tight checking and an opportunistic offense to win games.
If DeBus has a big year, the young defense comes together and two or three role players from last year help fill the void left by Bonin’s departure, the Gophers will find themselves in familiar playoff position.
“This is a confident club. We can go as far as we want to go,” DeBus said. “There’s no reason we can’t play in the national championship game.”
After all, Woods just captured his first PGA tournament victory this past weekend.
“You can’t predict things exactly,” Woog said of his team’s chances this year. “But you have a feeling something good is going to happen.”

Notes: Freshman Rico Pagel injured his left shoulder during practice on Monday and is expected to miss three or four weeks.