Captain Potulny remains leader without peer

David La Vaque

This year, the beards mark Minnesota’s Frozen Four run. Last year it was the perms, and next year promises Grant Potulny, it will be beards and perms.

As long as the Gophers men’s hockey captain is around, there should be a run next year. Potulny leads Minnesota into Buffalo – and Thursday’s semifinal game with Michigan – with all guns blazing.

Potulny has scored nine goals in Minnesota’s six postseason games, establishing himself as the Gophers go-to guy. Call him G-Money or Mr. March if you like, but Potulny is wary of labels. The junior left wing knows his game – like the facial follicles his teammates sport this time of year – is the product of constant growth and maintenance.

“When I came in I was just concerned about getting ice time,” Potulny said. “I didn’t know if I could keep up. But eventually you can pass people with hard work and keep climbing higher and higher.”

After the rookie season Potulny enjoyed, measuring future success looked to be tough. He scored 22 goals and led the nation with 16 power-play markers.

But as a sophomore, Potulny’s goal product slipped to 15 after he spent the summer shooting pucks instead of improving his mobility.

Prior to this season, Grant worked to become a complete player and trained like a man possessed. Though a broken ankle and ligament damage suffered on opening night kept Potulny out until January – and nearly sent the Gophers into a tailspin – the captain is back, postseason scruff and all.

Ironically, the only thing

temporary about Potulny is the facial hair. His play in front of the net, hockey’s version of the mosh pit, earns respect from his teammates. Off the ice, Potulny is a rock of leadership.

Combine his fire in the locker room with his unselfish play on the ice and you get a player who has revolutionized the Gopher hockey program.

“I love Grant in our program,” coach Don Lucia said. “Minnesota has attracted a lot of highly skilled, elite players. Grant is the opposite; he’s a self-made player. He brought a different element to this team.”

When the 23-year-old native of Grand Forks, N.D., scored the game-winning overtime goal to beat Maine in last year’s NCAA title game, he ushered in a new era of Minnesota hockey – and not just because he was the first non-Minnesotan to suit up for the Gophers in 13 years.

Since winning three NCAA titles between 1974 and 1979, Minnesota has become a haven for the elite. But names like Millen, Olimb, Bonin and Crowley – players who saw on the ice what Mozart must have seen when he looked at a piano – came and went without an NCAA title. While these players put up fantastic numbers, they might have needed more gritty complements like Potulny.

“They picked the right guy to bring in first,” said former captain Nate Miller, whose role on the power play was reprised by Potulny. “He’s a great team guy who keeps it simple; he works hard and plays his role.”

Potulny’s game is all bull no matador. At Wisconsin during his freshman year, Potulny scored a hat trick and then got six stitches in his chin after the game. He still shudders when he remembers a slash he took against St. Cloud State that left his legs numb. But his willingness to perform hockey’s dirty work made Potulny a recruiting target.

Former Gophers assistant coach John Hill recalls scouting the prestigious Viking Cup with Lucia in January of 2000 when Potulny first appeared on their radar.

As Hill tells it, “One of us looked at the other and said, ‘You know who I like?’ The other one said, ‘Yep, Grant Potulny.’

“Grant was what we needed more than anything at Minnesota.”

While the coaching staff flirted with former Michigan State forward Jeremy Jackson and former Boston College forward Chuck Kobasew, it was Potulny who broke down the Minnesota-only barrier. The Gophers were rewarded with a productive leader while Jackson (dismissed from team) and Kobasew (turned pro) spent a combined year and a half in college.

Now a critical part of the Gophers’ repeat hopes, Potulny continues to refine his game. Once just a power-play threat, Potulny has worked his way into four-on-four situations and the penalty kill.

Though scoring goals in bunches, Potulny is a hard-working captain determined to improve. And Potulny’s Minnesota teammates are following their blue-collar superstar to Buffalo.

“There are captains and there are leaders,” said Steve Johnson, Potulny’s coach for two seasons at Lincoln of the U.S. Hockey League. “Grant is both. He’s the guy that puts the knife between his teeth and gets up the hill first.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]