New season brings good riddance to old traditions

Maybe it was just the perfect briskness to the air, but for a few hours last Saturday night hockey was once again king of Minnesota and all was right with the world.
It didn’t happen in a fabled arena with puckmarks older than the average student. Instead, the Gophers 7-3 spanking of Notre Dame occurred in a shiny new building in downtown St. Paul, far from the shadow of a lifetime of legendary Gophers hockey players and coaches.
The world didn’t come to an end. In fact, hardly anyone even noticed.
The drive to downtown St. Paul notwithstanding, nary a complaint was heard about the new Xcel Energy Center not leaking Gopher ghosts at the seams.
The facility is amazing. There is not a press box; there’s a whole press level, complete with a phone and television every two seats. There’s a restaurant on the club level that serves a good prime rib sandwich and where a scribe can even sneak a cigarette if so inclined.
The very rich still get the best seats. The luxury suites are lushly carpeted and paneled in oak. Fans sipping complimentary cocktails can see every on-ice grimace. But at least at a professional arena, Joe Sixpack can buy a drink, as opposed to Mariucci where only the “cultural elite” can get a beer.
The participants were just as impressed. Players and coaches alike praised everything from the locker rooms to the ice. Anyone who’s ever followed hockey knows you hear good things concerning the ice in a new building about as often as you hear a farmer say he’s gotten just the right amount of rain.
“It’s a great building. I was a little surprised we had 15,000 people, but a lot of people can’t get into (Mariucci) because its sold out, so it was a great opportunity,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.
Lucia was the architect of much tradition-breaking last weekend. He started Grant Potulny, the first non-Minnesotan to play for the Gophers since goaltender John Blue at the beginning of Doug Woog’s tenure.
Not amazingly, when Potulny banged home his own reboud to give the Gophers a 2-0 lead in the first period the cheers sounded no different than when Matt Koalska, who grew up five minutes from the new building, notched the first.
But Don had a tradition of his own to break. A new haircut left Lucia coaching his first game without his trademark “hockey hair.” While this might come back to haunt Minnesota at the end of the year, so far the scorecard reads Shortcrop 1, Mullet 0.
If all this tradition breaking seems unnecessary, make no mistake: Lucia and company firmly intend on establishing a new tradition of their own — winning.
Yes, five of the new Gophers played in the USHL, a kind of mercenary league where players as young as 14 play a grueling schedule in hopes of catching a scouts’ eye.
But every other team in the country has used such players for years. And the new Gophers chipped in five points.
“Hopefully we can be back here next spring playing,” Lucia said, referring to the Final Five. Whether the Maroon and Gold can successfully negotiate the incredibly tough sea of WCHA opponents remains to be seen. But any coach getting that many goals from freshmen probably likes his chances.
Tradition is important. But not as important as some would have you believe. The exclusionary ideal of Minnesota’s “Pride on Ice,” made up of strapping, blonde-haired farm boys straight out of high school, died long ago.
In its place is a better tradition, one worth keeping. To quote Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers,” “I would hope you would appreciate who we are, not who we are not. This is your team.”
After the game, Koalska could not wipe the grin off his face as he answered questions about the first collegiate goal in the new barn. The newly shorn Lucia, wearing a smile of his own, walked over and clapped his freshman on the shoulder.
“I hate to interupt, but when you’re done here you’ve got to clean the locker room.”
Some traditions are worth keeping. They’re everything that’s right with the world.

Josh Linehan is the sports editor and wecomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612)627-4070 x3241.