For five Gophers, NHL can wait

The five players could have gone pro but decided to remain on campus.

Ben Gotz

After a loss to Union in the national championship game last year, Minnesota’s outlook for this season was up in the air.

Five seniors graduated, and a quintet of the team’s younger players had the option to leave and start their professional careers.

And the players who were weighing an early departure would have left a sizable hole in the program.

Mike Reilly was an All-America defenseman. Adam Wilcox was a second team All-America goaltender. Kyle Rau was a second team All-American and the team’s captain and leader. Brady Skjei and Hudson Fasching were young players who showed a lot of promise.

But rather than opting for NHL franchises, all five players chose to stay at Minnesota.

Head coach Don Lucia said the team’s success last year — the Gophers made it to the NCAA championship game — may have played a hand in their decisions.

“I think partly it speaks to the success that we had a year ago,” Lucia said, adding that the team’s strong record was due in part to players’ focus on college hockey, not life after it.

“Obviously, we have good players. But they’re team guys,” he said. “They want to have success at the University of Minnesota and have both feet in.”

There’s no doubt that having those five players on the ice increases the Gophers’ odds of making it back to the national championship game.

Lucia said some of them made up their minds about staying or going quickly, but Reilly and Wilcox both said they took their time before deciding to return for their junior year.

Reilly said he went to watch a playoff game for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that drafted him. He also got a tour of the city from his sister, Shannon Reilly, who lives in the area.

But Reilly said he wanted to get bigger and stronger and become more of a two-way defenseman before leaving for the professional league. Not to mention there are two members of the Gophers’ roster he didn’t want to leave behind: his brothers, Connor and Ryan Reilly.

“It played a big role [in my decision]. We’ve played together our whole lives,” Mike Reilly said. “To bond with them and live with them for at least one more year is something you can’t pass up.”

Wilcox said he wanted to wait until after last season to make a decision, even though he was asked about it frequently.

“I knew that I wanted to come back here and play because it was going to be a good team, and I think we’re going to have another good season,” Wilcox said. “I love the campus, even off the ice.”

Both Mike Reilly and Wilcox said their decisions were their own and at the end of the day, they needed to do what was best for their futures.

But they both remained in contact with their teammates, who were weighing the same decision to see where they were headed.

“We were open with each other,” Wilcox said. “If we asked each other about it, we would give each other an honest answer.”

The final answer came mid-July, when Kyle Rau announced that he would return for his senior season.

Senior alternate captain Ben Marshall said the team’s closeness shines through their decision to stay.

“The reason why people want to come back is that we’re such a close group,” he said. “… And that’s why we do so well.”

With the five Gophers back, the team is aiming for a national championship.

“Whenever you come to Minnesota, you should know that you have an opportunity to win a national championship,” Wilcox said. “Once most of the guys came and told the other guys they were coming back, we got pretty excited.”