Guentzel returns after 3 years away

Andrew Baker

After three years away from the University of Minnesota menâÄôs hockey program, Mike Guentzel was rehired by Gophers coach Don Lucia as an associate head coach last week to replace John Hill, who left the team in June.

Guentzel, a native of Marble, Minn., played defense for the Gophers from 1981 to 1985 and was an assistant coach for the team from 1994 to 2008, first under Doug Woog and later Lucia.

While HillâÄôs departure was expected, GuentzelâÄôs return raised some eyebrows in Gophers hockey circles, given that Guentzel left LuciaâÄôs program just three years earlier âÄî while Hill remained.

âÄúAt the time when I departed here I think it was time for a change,âÄù Guentzel said.

Though he officially resigned, a common perception among team supporters is that Guentzel was squeezed out in favor of Hill, whose history with Lucia dates to 1995 when the two men began coaching together at Colorado College.

âÄú[From] the things IâÄôve heard, it was more of a conflict between Hill and Guentzel than anything else,âÄù said Craig Cotner, who runs Gopher Puck Live, an online Gophers hockey forum and news site. âÄúFrom what I understand, Lucia more or less picked his friend [Hill] over Guentzel.âÄù

Lucia downplayed the idea of any turmoil within the coaching ranks.

âÄúPeople can speculate and think they know what goes on,âÄù the 13th-year coach said, âÄúbut very rarely they do.âÄù

Whatever happened behind closed doors the past few years, the GophersâÄô on-ice struggles have been well-publicized. Guentzel will work primarily with the defense on a young team that, incidentally, hasnâÄôt made the NCAA tournament since the 2007-08 season – GuentzelâÄôs last with Minnesota.

âÄúI donâÄôt know if anybody can run from the truth from that standpoint,âÄù Guentzel said. âÄúWhen I was working with Don âĦ our expectation was, âÄòWe want to be in the championship game every year.âÄô ThatâÄôs our goal. How do you say it without offending people that right now havenâÄôt been in the [WCHA] Final Five for two years?âÄù

GuentzelâÄôs first tenure on the GophersâÄô bench spanned 14 years and included 11 national tournament appearances, five NCAA Frozen Fours and the aforementioned two national championships.

Since leaving in 2008, Guentzel has served as an assistant at Colorado College, as head coach of the USHLâÄôs Des Moines Buccaneers and most recently as an assistant at Nebraska Omaha.

âÄúI think it was only natural to have [Guentzel] come in as the associate head coach because with his experience heâÄôs definitely going to be my right-hand man,âÄù Lucia said.

Cotner said although LuciaâÄôs apparent change of heart is perplexing to fans and alumni, they are excited for GuentzelâÄôs return.âÄúThey think heâÄôs a better recruiter, and heâÄôs definitely that person in between the coach [and the team] that the players really need right now,âÄù Cotner said, referring to GuentzelâÄôs reputation as a playerâÄôs coach.

His predecessor, Hill, was viewed as more of an extension of the head coach rather than a liaison to the players, Cotner said.

With Hill gone, only third-year assistant Grant Potulny and volunteer assistant Justin Johnson remain under Lucia, making GuentzelâÄôs experience all the more valuable. Both know Guentzel well, having played under him on the 2002 and 2003 championship teams.

âÄúI think Grant does really well on the recruiting,âÄù Guentzel said. âÄúI think thatâÄôs where youâÄôve got to really learn the business first and then hopefully now I can help him become a better day-to-day coach as far as practices and game management and things like that.âÄù

Likewise, Guentzel said his own coaching prowess and list of recruiting contacts have grown in his three years away from Minnesota.

âÄúI think this has been the best for me. ItâÄôs been difficult maybe for my family and some other situations, but IâÄôve been lucky because IâÄôve always had a supportive wife.âÄù

While Guentzel was bouncing around the country the last three years, his wife remained in Minnesota with their youngest son Jake, who as a sophomore at Hill-Murray last year recorded 43 regular season points, good for second-best on the team.