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Interim President Jeff Ettinger inside Morrill Hall on Sept. 20, 2023. Ettinger gets deep with the Daily: “It’s bittersweet.”
Ettinger reflects on his presidency
Published April 22, 2024

Beginner’s guide to the 2023 Gopher men’s hockey season

Although games are underway, it is not too late to catch up and learn about this year’s Gophers and the season ahead.
Image by Daye Stager
Minnesota Gophers (from left to right) Cal Thomas, Sam Rinzel, Ryan Chesley, and Charlie Strobel gather around Coach Bob Motzko to discuss strategy during a timeout. The No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers would go on to beat the No. 1 Minnesota Gophers 5-2 on Thursday, October 26th.

The Minnesota Gophers have been one of the most dominant teams in men’s college hockey for the past few seasons.

For fans looking to better understand the sport and the Gophers, here are the fundamental pieces to know.

Understanding in-conference and out-of-conference play

The Gophers started the season strong with three consecutive wins but followed the start with three straight losses. Minnesota now sits at a record of four wins, three losses and one tie. 

Two of Minnesota’s losses came from the Wisconsin Badgers, a team with a historic rivalry against the Gophers dating back to Minnesota’s inaugural season back in 1922. The Badgers are an in-conference opponent, so Minnesota’s losses to them counted toward their Big Ten record and their overall record. The Gophers’ first loss against North Dakota was an out-of-conference game, meaning it only counted toward their overall record.

The games against opponents within the Big Ten conference, like Wisconsin, are played in the format of a two-game series and usually occur over the weekend. One team hosts both games at their home arena in the series. 

For out-of-conference matchups, a series is often hosted by one home team. However, if the two teams are located in the same state, it is often formatted as a home-and-away series. 

For example, the Gophers recently hosted the first game of their home-and-away series against Minnesota-Duluth at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Friday but traveled to Duluth for the second game on Saturday.

Minnesota has been a part of the Big Ten Conference since the conference’s formation in 2013. Since then, the Gophers have won the Big Ten tournament twice and held the best season record in the conference six times.

Before joining the Big Ten, Minnesota was a part of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) up until 2013. When the Gophers were still in the WCHA, the league featured prominent teams like North Dakota, Denver and Minnesota-Duluth. 

The WCHA ceased operations for men’s hockey following the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. 

This year, Minnesota has been among the top teams each week in the national rankings from the U.S. College Hockey Online (USCHO), including two consecutive weeks as the number one team. 

Key players to look out for

Jimmy Snuggerud, the second-year forward who wears jersey number 81 for the Gophers, is a popular name among fans. Snuggerud often receives the loudest cheer from fans during pre-game lineup introductions.

He leads the team in scoring this season with six goals and a total of eight points. One of the skills he is known for is his ability to shoot the puck with speed and accuracy.

Snuggerud said he shoots an estimated 2,500 pucks a week to improve his shot.

Justen Close, a graduate goaltender for the Gophers, said Snuggerud can change the angle of his shot as well, making it difficult to stop as a goalie.

Close is an important factor in the team as he is the team’s starting goaltender, meaning he plays as goalie for most of the games throughout the season. He has four wins so far, two of which he won without allowing a goal.

Behind Snuggerud on the top point leaders list is graduate forward and team captain Jaxon Nelson. Nelson dons the number 24 for the maroon and gold and has four goals and three assists to start the season.

Nelson is one of the most experienced players in the program and is now in his fifth season with the Gophers as a co-captain.

Another experienced player, Mike Koster, serves a large role on the defensive end. Koster, a senior defender who wears number 4, recently returned to the Gophers after sitting out the start of the season with an injury. He totaled 29 points last season and is serving as a co-captain of the team this year.

Newcomers Oliver Moore and Sam Rinzel are leading the team’s youth movement as first-year players and are making an immediate impact on the ice.

Moore, a forward who wears number 11 for the Gophers, has two goals and five assists this season and has been one of the team’s most dominant offensive players to start the year.

On the other hand, Rinzel, a first-year defender who wears number 5, has six points. Rinzel provides a solid defensive game while contributing to the offense as well.

Jimmy Clark, a forward who wears number 23, is another first-year player who has been making a name for himself on the team. He has three points in eight games this season.

A historically successful and prominent team

The Gophers have a decorated resume across their 103-year history. Minnesota boasts over 1,900 wins as a program, five national championships and 16 conference tournament championships.

Such success has established a great desire for opposing teams to defeat the Gophers. Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko said the team often feels animosity when approaching a series against most teams.

“We got a target on our back usually, no matter who we play,” Motzko said.

This is attested to by the amount of rivalry series the Gophers have. Series against teams like Wisconsin, North Dakota, Michigan and Minnesota-Duluth are often the biggest series of the season.

The Gophers’ schedule to begin this season consists of those four rivalry teams. Minnesota has already played Wisconsin, North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth and will face off against Michigan this weekend.

Nelson said he enjoys playing in such rivalry games. 

“I think that’s the best part about coming to Minnesota,” Nelson said. “Being able to play those teams and those rivalries –– it’s just great hockey.”

Motzko is in his sixth season as the head coach of Minnesota and has won over 60 percent of his games with the program. He has been a part of major feats within the program, such as last season’s second-place finish in the NCAA tournament

In terms of individual success, the Gophers have a large pool of alumni who have played or are playing professionally in the NHL.

Logan Cooley, Brock Faber and Matthew Knies are in their rookie seasons in the NHL and played for the Gophers last season. 

Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Thomas Vanek, Erik Johnson and Alex Goligoski are other notable Minnesota hockey alumni who have had successful careers in the NHL.

Appreciation of fan support from players

According to the USCHO, Minnesota has had an average attendance of 9,856 at home games this season, the second-highest among NCAA teams. 

Charlie Strobel, a sophomore forward who wears number 27 for the Gophers, said the team loves the support from the fans.

“We have the best fans in the country,” Strobel said. “I truly don’t think there’s anybody better at Mariucci than our Gophers fans”

Especially in a rivalry series, Clark said having the dedicated Gopher fanbase show support is exciting. 

Unfortunately for fans, Minnesota will not play a home game at Mariucci until next weekend on Nov. 17. Their next match will be on Friday when they visit Ann Arbor, Michigan in their first away series game against Michigan.

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