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The Transition: Former Gophers hockey star John Pohl

Pohl never dreamed of playing in the NHL but played 8 years of pro hockey.
Former Gophers hockey star John Pohl talks with his homeroom class Friday at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul. Pohl, who helped lead Minnesota to the 2002 national championship, now teaches business classes to high school students.
Image by Mark Vancleave
Former Gophers hockey star John Pohl talks with his homeroom class Friday at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul. Pohl, who helped lead Minnesota to the 2002 national championship, now teaches business classes to high school students.

John Pohl works as a teacher in the business department at a local high school. The teacher is inconspicuous given his unassuming stature — he doesn’t look much like a former college hockey star.

Not all of his Cretin-Derham Hall students know of his career prior to teaching.

But just 10 years ago, Pohl captained the Gophers to a 2002 national title. Pohl then had an eight-year professional career that ended in 2010.

Although he was never an impact player in the NHL, Pohl said he accomplished more in his career than he ever dreamed.

Never really a dreamer

Pohl always liked hockey but never loved it.

He never had the traditional childhood dream of playing in the NHL. He didn’t even consider a run with college hockey until his final two years of high school.

His only dream growing up in the small town of Red Wing, Minn., was to one day play in the state tournament as a member of Red Wing High School varsity hockey team.

Pohl accomplished his dream making varsity as a freshman and helped lead the team thereafter.

The Wingers went on to make the state tournament four times in four years with Pohl. They captured the state title his junior season in 1997.

Pohl said the Wingers were better than their competition at the time because they played in a smaller class. He was a prolific scorer in high school — he scored 111 and 107 points in his junior and senior campaigns, respectively.

It was that type of dominance at the high school level that garnered Minnesota’s interest, and it was a perfect match.

“The Gophers told me I was the No. 1 target they were going for that year,” Pohl said, “and they would have had to offer me nothing not to go there. That’s all I wanted to do, and I went to Mariucci once, and my heart was set.”

Pohl did not even take his other college visits after his visit to the University of Minnesota. But he said he was skeptical at first because of the caliber of the program.

“It’s funny because the fear I had about going to the Gophers was that I wasn’t going to be able to play because they were so good,” Pohl said. “I did look at some other schools that weren’t as good as the U because I thought I would play more there, but I just went with my heart.”

Tough first year

Pohl dominated his time in high school hockey, so his first year at Minnesota was a struggle as  he played predominantly on the fourth line.

“I had to work my ass off just to stay in the lineup, which looking back on it was great thing because … I never took it for granted,” Pohl said. “I just wanted to be part of the team, so it’s not like I was pissed off every night. I just wanted to be a part of the team and win.”

Pohl played in 42 games as a college freshman but scored just 17 points.

Because he played on the fourth line, Pohl did not get as much ice time as he wanted in his first year with the Gophers.

Despite that inner struggle, Pohl said there was a deeper issue dividing the team at the time.

In Doug Woog’s last couple years as head coach, Pohl said the chemistry was not good. Freshmen were not welcomed in as a part of the team.

“They shaved our head, and we had to do some pretty dumb things,” Pohl said of the first-year hazing. “It was a one-night party, and that wasn’t even the bad thing. It was moreso the fact that the freshmen were looked down on.”

Jordan Leopold, a current defenseman for the Buffalo Sabres, came in the same year as Pohl and said it had a heavy effect on the team.

“It was tough because when we came in as freshmen and the team was kind of divided among freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors,” Leopold said.

Don Lucia took over for Woog in their second season with the team. After that, Pohl said the separation between the classes stopped completely.

2002 National Champs

In his senior season with the Gophers, Pohl and Leopold were named co-captains to start one of the most memorable seasons in Minnesota history.

“I wore the ‘C’ on the road and Jordan wore it at home,” Pohl said. “I remember … that was probably one of the biggest honors you can have — being captain of the Gophers.”

Pohl helped lead the team to an 11-0-2 start through the first month of the season and paced the team with 79 points that year.

“He was about as good a captain as you could get that year,” associate head coach Mike Guentzel said of Pohl. “He was a Minnesota guy, and when he stepped on the rink, when he was in the starting lineup, when he scored, there was a different energy in the building.”

Though it started the season hot, Minnesota sputtered toward the middle of the season — particularly on Friday nights.

That team never lost back-to-back games that season and was able to right the ship in time for the playoffs.

Pohl’s 79 points led the nation in scoring that year but did not make the top-10 list for the Hobey Baker award — given to the best player in college hockey.

Leopold won the Hobey Baker award that year, but it still shocked the team that Pohl wasn’t on the list. It shocked everyone except Pohl.

Former teammate Grant Potulny said Pohl “didn’t care at all.” Potulny is now an assistant coach with the team.

“He didn’t care if he led the country in scoring, if he was an All-American, if he won the Hobey Baker trophy. He just wanted us to win, and that was his will and his determination that went through our group,” Potulny said.

That determination carried over into the NCAA tournament, where Minnesota defeated Colorado College and Michigan to reach the championship game.

The title game against Maine still lives in Minnesota hockey history.

Trailing by one goal with less than a minute to play, head coach Don Lucia called a timeout and drew up a desperation play to try to tie the game.

There was still some hope on the bench, but not much, and none coming from Pohl.

“I’m a captain, and I’m supposed to be a positive guy, but I remember sitting on the bench with a minute to go … and being like, ‘I can’t believe we did this. I can’t believe we’ve come all this way and we’re going to lose,’” Pohl said.

However, seconds out of the timeout the puck bounced off Pohl and Matt Koalska scored to tie the score at 3-3 and send the game into overtime.

In overtime, Koalska drew a penalty, and on the power play Potulny scored to capture Minnesota’s first national title in 23 years.

“It’s all just a blur. I don’t remember anything after he scored,” Pohl said. “There is a video of me throwing my helmet and skating around like an idiot … but from the 30 seconds after it happened for the next two weeks, everyone was so happy.”

Added Leopold: “It was surreal at the time how it ended up happening, where it happened. But I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to have to have it happen to.

“We made our mark on history.”

Nothing like he expected

The St. Louis Blues drafted Pohl as a senior in high school, but he played three years in the minors after his time with the Gophers.

Pohl said professional hockey was not what he expected — the camaraderie in the NHL was nowhere near what he was used to with the Gophers.

“It’s like Herb Brooks’ quote about the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back,” Pohl said.

“Except in pro hockey, it’s the other way around.”

Of his time floundering in the organization, Pohl said: “I didn’t really fit in well, and I didn’t like it. I thought about quitting after my second year, I thought about quitting after my third year, and then I got traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs which was just a breath of fresh air.”

He played one NHL game in his three years with the Blues and in that game was a minus-2 and scored on his own goal.

Once in Toronto, Pohl played three on-and-off seasons in the NHL.

His most successful season came in 2006-07 when he set career-highs in games (74) and points (29).

Pohl scored the first goal of his career against legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur.

“For over a year I had played one NHL game, and I was minus-2 and had scored on my own goalie, so when I got back to the NHL and at least played one more game I was like, ‘Thank God that’s not my only game,’” Pohl said.

Pohl finished his career with one season in Europe and one season with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.

“I liked hockey, but I never loved it,” Pohl said. “I loved being with my brothers and playing with my buddies … and then after that it just became a job.”

Family matters

In college, Pohl met his future wife, Krissy Wendell — the sister of his roommate and teammate Erik Wendell.

“I don’t think it went over very well right away,” Wendell-Pohl said. “[Erik’s] pretty protective, but everything worked out.”

Pohl said it started as a long-distance relationship because Wendell-Pohl was in training for the Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“Erik wasn’t a big fan of us dating at first, and I don’t blame him, but he’s my brother-in-law now,” Pohl said.

Since then Nick Anthony married Keith Ballard’s sister — two other members of the 2001-02 championship squad, according to Pohl.

“It’s funny because Jordan and I preached family with that team, and technically a couple of us from that team are family now,” Pohl said.

Wendell-Pohl moved in with Pohl when he was playing in Toronto. They had their oldest child, Emily, there and moved to Europe when she was just nine weeks old.

Aside from their eldest Emily, they have Anna, who will be 2 in April, and Lucy, who was born just a few weeks ago.

Pohl played one more season of professional hockey and then hung up the skates for good.

“I didn’t want to keep dragging my family around at that point,” he said.

Life after hockey

Pohl finished his final game with the Chicago Wolves in the middle of May and had a job at Cretin-Derham in early June. Pohl said the entire process took about three weeks.

Wendell-Pohl said she has seen a change in her husband since he started working at Cretin.

“I think the transition has been awesome,” Wendell-Pohl said, “and I actually think he is happier now than he was when he was playing.”

Pohl said the shift to teaching has been easy because he ended his hockey career on his own terms.

“It’s been one of the best things in the world,” Pohl said. “Could I have kept playing? For sure.

“But I couldn’t be happier at where I am now.”


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