Potulny continues his winning tradition

The assistant coach was a three-time captain during his playing days.

David Nelson

Grant Potulny wasn’t Minnesota’s strongest skater. He wasn’t its best scorer. And he wasn’t its craftiest stickhandler.

But with an inexhaustible work ethic and uncanny leadership skills, Potulny helped rebuild a once-great Gophers hockey program in the early 2000s. Now he’s attempting to do the same as an assistant coach.

In the 2002 national title game, Potulny scored Minnesota’s game-winning goal against Maine.

He still remembers the moment vividly.

“Jordan [Leopold] had an opportunity to try to get the puck to the net,” Potulny said. “He had [gotten] a pass from Jeff Taffe and … on the way to the net [the shot] was going wide and it happened to hit Johnny Pohl. [The puck] popped right onto my stick, and I just swung at it.”

Bedlam erupted inside the Xcel Energy Center as the shot slid past Maine’s goaltender, lifting Minnesota to its first national title in more than 20 years.

“Without fail, and you’d hear this from any guy who was in that locker room with him, he’s the best leader that we’ve ever had,” former defenseman and teammate Judd Stevens said. “He never did it with pretty plays … but he had an awesome career and scored a ton of huge goals [because] of his determination and his will and his character.”

While outside observers might call that goal Potulny’s memorable accomplishment, the former player said he’s more honored by the three years he spent serving as one of the Gophers’ captains.

“You talk about scoring the goal and that’s a wonderful moment,” Potulny said. “But the trust and respect you get from your team … that was special.”

Just more than a decade after his college graduation, Potulny finds himself in a much different leadership position as an assistant coach for No. 6 Minnesota.

“Even though he was young [when we hired him], he was mature,” head coach Don Lucia said. “All he’s done is absorb, learn — he wants to be a coach. You see that passion in him.”

When Potulny became a full-time coach for Lucia at the start of the 2009-2010 season, the Gophers had just concluded a year in which they ranked tied for eighth in power-play percentage nationally and 13th in team offense.

But after Potulny has worked with Minnesota’s forwards for the past five seasons, the Gophers now have the nation’s 10th-best offense and third-best power play percentage.

Leading the Gophers

Lucia arrived as the Gophers’ new head coach in 1999 after serving stints at Colorado College and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

When a gritty forward from North Dakota became one of Lucia’s targets in the 2000 recruiting class, Potulny said he helped start a new trend at Minnesota.

“They had been an all-Minnesota team for the tenure of Doug Woog,” Potulny said. “When coach Lucia came in … [he said] we’re going to open the borders up to good players and guys who fit in our role.”

But unlike some of his peers who he joined on campus, Potulny wasn’t exactly a superstar in the making.

“I was probably a little different than what they had in the past,” Potulny said. “I was more of a supporting player than a guy who would carry a line.”

Despite whatever limitations he had as an athlete, Potulny made up for it as a leader on the ice.

“There were guys on the team that got there on skill … and you maybe needed a kick in the rear to develop the work ethic,” former teammate Stevens said. “And Grant got there on the opposite … his work ethic was beyond measure.”

Following the Gophers’ national championship season of 2001-02, Minnesota faced plenty of adversity during its title defense the next year.

“His junior year, Grant broke his ankle earlier in the year, which forced him to miss a good chunk of the season,” Stevens said. “As Grant was injured, we struggled.”

But the hardships brought the best out of the Gophers’ captain.

“One day, we had gone through a tough sketch … he gathered the troops and came with the slogan that, ‘We’re gonna shock the world this year, boys,’” Stevens said. “Upon his return … we went on just a hot streak.”

Minnesota, of course, went on to win its second consecutive championship that season, dominating New Hampshire 5-1 in the 2003 title game.

The road to coaching

Potulny concluded his time with the Gophers as a three-time captain and a two-time national champion.

He spent six years playing in the American Hockey League until another ankle injury derailed Potulny’s professional career. But that led him back to Minnesota for a job as a volunteer assistant with the Gophers.

After one year, Lucia took off the volunteer assistant label following the departure of Mike Hastings.

“Being an alum, being around the program, being a guy who played for Don … he kind of breached the idea of me becoming a full-time coach,” Potulny said. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a wonderful opportunity.’”

Ever since, Potulny has become a big reason for Minnesota’s consistent success.

“If we’re not playing well or we’re not working hard, he’ll be the first on to call us out on it,” sophomore forward Justin Kloos said. “But he’s definitely a little bit quicker to say, ‘Good job.’”

While Potulny didn’t rule out the possibility of a head coaching job in the future, he said he’s content with his place right now.

“I know there’s some people that that’s the most important thing to them,” Potulny said. “Right now, I think [my family and I] are all in a good place.”