Uncertain future awaits Gophers hockey team

The team graduates six seniors and other players might sign pro contracts.

by Ben Gotz

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Seth Ambroz stared out blankly at the postgame press conference, his gaze fixed downward.

When asked to describe his emotions after Minnesota’s 4-1 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the NCAA tournament — ending his college career — Ambroz needed time to compose himself.

Sophomore forward Vinni Lettieri stepped in to offer praise for his alternate captain and the Gophers’ entire six-man senior class.

“They’ve definitely made their mark here,” Lettieri said. “We can’t thank them enough. These guys are workhorses, and they’ve got good careers ahead of them.”

The mark the Gophers senior class will leave includes four regular-season conference titles, four trips to the NCAA tournament and two trips to the Frozen Four.

In a program as storied as Minnesota, Ambroz, Kyle Rau, Travis Boyd, Sam Warning, Ben Marshall and Christian Isackson’s accomplishments still stand out. And now, their absence next season will leave a sizable void.

“I’m just really proud of this group. They were a really fun group, this senior class,” head coach Don Lucia said after his team’s loss to Duluth. “They were loyal to our program. They’re all graduating. They’re all great kids, great students.”

Besides the senior class, the Gophers may have to deal with the departures of several underclassmen to the professional ranks.

Junior defenseman Mike Reilly, junior defenseman Brady Skjei, junior goaltender Adam Wilcox and sophomore forward Hudson Fasching all chose to return to campus last season instead of beginning careers in the National Hockey League.

Now, the four will face the same decision this offseason.

This year, Reilly became the first defenseman to lead the Gophers in points since the 1996-97 season. He’s also a top-10 finalist for the highest individual honor in college hockey — the Hobey Baker Award.

Skjei is one of the team’s best defenders from the blue line, while Fasching is one of the team’s best two-way players at forward.

And Wilcox is the best goaltender Lucia has worked with at Minnesota, holding the program record for goals against average and save percentage.

Any NHL departures, coupled with the loss of the team’s six seniors, would shake up a roster that boasted impressive continuity during the season.

In the Gophers’ final game against Duluth, their line chart only featured three freshman skaters.

That may not happen again next year as the Gophers attempt to remake one of their most talented teams in recent memory.

Their final line chart Friday contained 14 players drafted by an NHL franchise — the Bulldogs’ featured four.

The Gophers likely won’t be that talented on paper again next season. But being talented on paper couldn’t get them out of the first round of the NCAA tournament this year.

“Obviously some guys struggled [Friday], and I feel bad for them, but it still doesn’t take away what this team did,” Lucia said. “Especially our seniors during the course of their careers.”