Recruits hope to return Gophers to dominance

Incoming freshman Kyle Rau is the seventh Mr. Hockey in the past 10 years to commit to play for Minnesota.

Eden Prairies Kyle Rau and Duluth Easts Andrew Kerr battle for the puck in the second period of the Class AA high school championship game in St. Paul, Saturday,  March 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Janet Hostetter)

AP Photo/Janet Hostetter

Eden Prairie’s Kyle Rau and Duluth East’s Andrew Kerr battle for the puck in the second period of the Class AA high school championship game in St. Paul, Saturday, March 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Janet Hostetter)

by Nicolas Hallett

It is no secret that Gophers hockey is held to a high standard. Even with back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003, the program has come under fire after three years without an NCAA tournament bid.

New recruit Blake Thompson understands.

âÄúWe have such high expectations because weâÄôre Minnesota,âÄù he said. âÄúWe have to win.âÄù

Thompson recently committed to join the Gophers after three seasons in the USHL with the Waterloo Blackhawks. The Eden Prairie native and USHLAll-Star in 2008-09 was a late addition to a recruiting class that includes highly touted duo Seth Ambroz and Kyle Rau. Both Ambroz and Rau, MinnesotaâÄôs 2011 Mr. Hockey, are projected early round selections in JuneâÄôs NHL draft. Thompson, who has been draft eligible for two years, has yet to be selected.

âÄúI donâÄôt want to worry about getting drafted or not,âÄù Thompson said. âÄúI want to worry about playing well for the team. If I get into a good position to get looked at by NHL teams, itâÄôs an added bonus. The main concern is having a successful year [as a team].âÄù

Thompson and Rau have played together before at the Eden Prairie youth level. Thompson was excited by the idea of a reunion.

âÄú[Rau] always brought it,âÄù Thompson said. âÄúThere wasnâÄôt ever a game where he wasnâÄôt the man to watch. HeâÄôs a fun player to watch.âÄù

Rau is the most recent addition to a long list of Mr. Hockeys âÄî the award given to the outstanding senior boyâÄôs high school hockey player in the state âÄî to play for the Gophers. Since 2002, seven out of the last ten have come to Minnesota.

 Rau earned the award by leading Eden Prairie to the AA state title last year. The senior forward dominated in the teamâÄòs three state tournament games, tallying seven points (five goals, two assists), and was just as impressive in the regular season with 69 points (33 goals, 36 assists) in 25 games.

MinnesotaâÄôs recent struggles stem at least partly from a lack of long-term commitment from elite players like Rau. In terms of eligibility, the 2011-12 Minnesota roster could have had four Mr. Hockey award winners. Instead, only two will don maroon and gold this upcoming season. Nick Bjugstad, Mr. Hockey in 2010 and a first round pick of the Florida Panthers, will return for his sophomore year, but previous winners Aaron Ness (2008) and Nick Leddy (2009) have already jumped to NHL.

The latter, Leddy, spent only one season as a Gopher. Kyle Okposo and Jordan Schroeder are other recent examples of early departures by influential players.

âÄúI think we have to look when weâÄôre recruiting and [make] sure we bring in some older kids, make sure we bring in some elite players and make sure we bring in some four year players,âÄù head coach Don Lucia said shortly after MinnesotaâÄôs 2010-11 season was ended abruptly by Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. âÄúI donâÄôt think weâÄôre that far away.âÄù

At 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, Rau is considered small by NHL standards, and as a result could have a prolonged college career. Thompson, who is fighting just to be recognized by pro scouts, said he is planning to stay all four years.

âÄúI think itâÄôs good for the organization to have some guys who arenâÄôt just looking to move on,âÄù Thompson said. âÄúInstead, use the University as a place to improve and win a national championship.âÄù

Thompson, who missed out on winning a state title with Eden Prairie because he departed for the USHL after his sophomore year of high school, was adamant about winning a national crown.

âÄúThatâÄôs all thatâÄôs on my mind, and I hope thatâÄôs all thatâÄôs on everyone elseâÄôs mind,âÄù he said.