Battle-tested rookies look to make early contributions

David La

As the Minnesota men’s hockey team ushers in a potent 2000 freshman class, a common theme resonates throughout the program; these kids are more than just alright.
Six of the seven newcomers played in the USHL rather than a high school league last season, making them no stranger to stern competition and large amounts of games.
Veteran Gophers players, most of whom enjoyed stellar high school careers, saw the difference in the freshmen immediately.
Even highly-touted Paul Martin, the 2000 Minnesota Mr. Hockey recipient, paled in comparison.
“They’re tougher and smarter on the puck,” junior Johnny Pohl said. “They don’t try to beat everyone one-on-one. Paul Martin is the only kid who played in high school last year and you can tell.
“Paul is going to be a great player, but when captain’s practice started, he wasn’t on the same level as (Grant) Potulny, (Troy) Riddle and (Jon) Waibel.”
Coach Don Lucia envisions as many as four freshmen contributing right away, all of whom came out of the USHL; Potulny, Riddle, Waibel and Matt Koalska.
“That league plays hard,” Dave Poulin, Notre Dame coach, said. “Boy, they play hard. And they play hard every night. It prepares them for life in college hockey.”
All Gophers freshmen who played in the USHL came from Minnesota — with the exception of Potulny — but traded in dreams of section titles and state tournament championships for on-the-job hockey apprenticeships.
“You play on the road and in front of big crowds, so its a great experience,” Riddle said. “Every team was tough in the standings, so you always needed to win.”
The seasoned freshmen figure to play a key role in establishing Minnesota as a force across the nation.
Last year, the Gophers were 17-5-0 against teams not in the NCAA tournament, and a mere 3-15-2 versus tournament teams.
“We have to prove we can beat the top teams in this conference,” Lucia said. “We’re better this year and should stack up better.”
ù WCHA head coaches voted 2000 national champion North Dakota the preseason favorite for the conference title in the Grand Forks Herald’s annual poll.
Wisconsin, winners of the WCHA last season, finished second with Minnesota and St. Cloud State tying for third.
Forward Dany Heatley from Wisconsin took preseason player of the year, while Riddle shared top billing with Connor James of Denver for preseason rookie of the year.
ù Of the 26 players on the Gophers roster, 56-percent have been drafted by an NHL team, the highest amount ever at Minnesota.

David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]