Potulny looks to carry on family legacy versus Sioux

Grand Forks, N.D., native Ryan Potulny faces his hometown school Thursday.

Ben Goessling

Every afternoon, when Ryan Potulny came home from school, the reruns were there to get his mind racing.

Potulny could look forward to a full slate of Minnesota hockey games every afternoon on Midwest Sports Channel. But beyond that, everything else was a haze.

Thanks to former Gophers coach Doug Woog’s policy of recruiting only Minnesota-born players, the Grand Forks, N.D., native figured he would be out of luck when it came to getting his face on television in a Minnesota uniform.

“I just fell in love with them,” Potulny said. “But I hadn’t thought about (playing at Minnesota) much.”

That all changed approximately five seconds after Potulny’s older brother, Grant Potulny, committed to the Gophers in March 2000 and became the team’s first non-Minnesota player since 1987.

And now, five years later, Ryan Potulny’s hockey career has come full circle.

Ryan Potulny, along with fellow North Dakota native Danny Irmen, will play his first Frozen Four game Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, and it’s against none other than the Sioux.

He’ll certainly see his fair share of hecklers – one held up a sign at the WCHA Final Five that read, “Potulny, dial 1-800-JOINUND; tutors are standing by” – but there is still no team Ryan Potulny said he enjoys playing more than North Dakota.

“It’s always a little extra incentive,” he said. “If anything, I feed off the extra attention.”

To fully understand Ryan Potulny’s story, you have to throw in a couple extra characters.

The first is his brother, who broke down the “Woog Wall” and ended the fallout over coach Don Lucia’s new policy when he scored the game-winning goal in the 2002 NCAA title game.

“Steve Johnson, my coach in junior hockey, kind of told me how big of a deal it would be,” Grant Potulny said. “People that are true Gophers fans wanted that pride back and wanted the program to be where it is today. I just hope every kid that comes through there has the opportunity to play for a championship.”

When Grant Potulny started his career at Minnesota, his brother was just 16 years old, in his second year at Grand Forks’ Red River High School and getting used to playing with Irmen.

Irmen transferred from North High School in Fargo, N.D., that summer and met Ryan Potulny when they played against each other in the state bantam tournament.

As for their initial meeting, well, let’s just say that didn’t go so well.

“Before we (played together), we hated each other,” Ryan Potulny said. “Then, we met one summer, and we just clicked. He came and played with us (at Red River High School) and I said, ‘OK, this guy’s all right.’ “

The two haven’t been apart since.

Born just a day apart, Ryan Potulny and Irmen formed a pairing that went from Grand Forks to the United States Hockey League’s Lincoln Stars, where they won the Clark Cup Championship.

They arrived at Minnesota in the fall, headlining a highly touted recruiting class as a one-two crop that would have gone elsewhere in the Woog years.

“Growing up, I had a Gopher jersey with my name on the back, but people told me I’d never play for them,” Irmen said. “This is the biggest thing Ryan and I have ever done together.”

Irmen has 43 points, Ryan Potulny 42, and they rank second and third on the team in scoring. While both have tailed off after a sizzling first half, it wouldn’t be surprising if they become the newest members of a growing North Dakota connection to lead Minnesota to a championship.

“Like I told Ryan, the hard part for them is over now,” said Grant Potulny, who added he talks to his brother every day. “They’ll be on ESPN; on the national stage. It’s something they always dreamed of.”

Maybe Ryan Potulny and Irmen will even star in their own rerun.