Don Lucia was only 40 years old when the University of Minnesota hired him to replace Doug Woog as its hockey coach in 1999. The native of Grand Rapids, Minn., had spent six seasons turning around the program at Colorado College and, although he wasn’t a Minnesota alum, his hiring didn’t come as a surprise considering the success he had had at such a young age.
Nineteen years later, the Gophers again are turning to a non-University of Minnesota graduate only this time it’s not an up-and-coming coach but rather an established one from inside the state.
The Gophers announced Tuesday that Austin, Minn., native Bob Motzko will be introduced as the 15th men’s hockey coach in program history on Thursday afternoon.
The move does not come as a surprise.
Motzko spent the past 13 seasons as head coach of the St. Cloud State Huskies. He took that job after serving as an assistant on Lucia’s staff at Minnesota from 2001 to 2005, meaning his time with the Gophers included back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003.
Lucia stepped aside last month exactly five months before his 60th birthday. Motzko took the job on Tuesday, the same day on which he celebrated his 57th birthday.
Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle could have gone with a young coach like former Gophers star Grant Potulny, who recently turned 38, and led Northern Michigan to one of its best seasons in two decades.
But given the speed with which Motzko was hired it’s obvious he was Coyle’s first choice on what likely was a very short list. Motzko took the job only four days after the Huskies were upset 4-1 by fourth-seeded Air Force in the West Regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament in Sioux Falls.
This came after St. Cloud State captured the NCHC regular-season title, finished as the runner-up to Denver in the conference tournament and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tourney.
Motkzo, who played hockey at St. Cloud and graduated from St. Cloud in 1987, guided the Huskies to eight NCAA tournament appearances as a head coach but never won a title. The closest he came was a Frozen Four appearance in 2013.
St. Cloud State lost in three other regional finals, falling to Wisconsin in 2010, the Gophers in 2014 and North Dakota in 2015. Motzko’s last two NCAA appearances in St. Cloud proved to be a disappointment as the No. 1-seeded Huskies were bounced by No. 4-seeded Ferris State in 2016 and then by Air Force this season. Motzko did lead the U.S. national junior team to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in 2017 and a bronze medal in 2018.
Motzko will take over a Gophers program that missed the NCAA tournament this season for the second time in three years. His job got a bit more difficult in recent days as Gophers sophomore defenseman Ryan Lindgren signed with the New York Rangers last Thursday and freshman forward Casey Mittelstadt, the eighth-overall pick by Buffalo in 2017, signed with the Sabres on Monday.
None of this will or should dial down the pressure on Motzko, who reportedly was making $302,000 per season at St. Cloud State. His salary at the university likely will exceed the $630,000 that Lucia reportedly was set to make as the Gophers coach in 2018-19.
Motzko not only will be expected to return the Gophers to being a national championship contender, he also must deal with the fact that fan support for the hockey program has dramatically decreased since he left and seeing rows of empty seats for games at Mariucci Arena is no longer a surprise.
Motzko not only has a lot of work to do when it comes to recruiting but he also must recruit a fan base that largely has jumped ship in part because of the Gophers’ move to the Big Ten.
Coyle’s decision to go with Motzko sends a clear message about his expectations for Gophers hockey.
The Gophers AD decided to go with youth when he hired then 36-year-old P.J. Fleck as his football coach in January 2017. That made Fleck the youngest head football coach among NCAA Division I programs. This was after Coyle had inherited Richard Pitino, who is still only 35 years old, as his men’s basketball coach.
Perhaps Coyle sees those programs – especially football – as being in a rebuilding phase that requires an energetic, young coach like Fleck. Considering where Gophers football is at right now, it’s pretty clear there will be plenty of patience and coming off a very disappointing season Pitino still has time to turn around things.
Motzko likely will have no such luxury.
The Gophers have what long has been considered to be one of the premier hockey programs in the country. Only that hasn’t felt like the case of late.
Starting Thursday, the pressure will be on Motzko to make sure that changes.