Myers: Coaches' friendship endures despite Gopher-Husky intensity
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For decades prior to their jump to Division I hockey in 1987, the St. Cloud State Huskies had well established rivalries, in several sports, with the likes of Bemidji State, Minnesota State-Mankato, Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota. So one would naturally think that the opportunity to play those teams on the hockey rink, at college hockey's highest level, would be a big deal in central Minnesota.
But some 20 years after the Huskies joined the WCHA, there's still nothing in terms of intensity that compares with a visit by the Gophers.
SCSU (or, as it's known on Gopher hockey fan message boards, "JBSU" - short for the derisive "Jan Brady State University") fans will start lining up many hours before the Gophers even get to the National Hockey Center on Friday evening, and the school's reputation as a place to party will likely be upheld by the time the visitors take to the rink for warm-ups, and are greeted with all manner of unpleasant invectives.
"We know that when we go to St. Cloud the place will be packed and the students are excited, and I'm sure they'll have a high fuel octane in their system when we get there," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "But that's what makes it fun."
However, this rivalry that is so heated among the fans, has a more friendly undercurrent behind the benches. There were likely not many holiday cards exchanged between the program's former coaches, Doug Woog at Minnesota and Craig Dahl at St. Cloud State. Both of those leaders are long gone, with Dahl now a financial advisor in Upstate New York while serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the hockey program at SUNY-Geneseo. Woog still does stints on Gophers TV, and can often be seen coaching his granddaughters on the ice at a rink in Inver Grove Heights.
In their places on the team benches this weekend are two men whose life-long friendship takes a bit of the edge off the intensity that exists when these closest of geographical rivals collide. Bob Motzko is now in his seventh season at his alma mater, and came there directly from Lucia's office in Mariucci Arena, where he was a top assistant for the Gophers during their run to the national championships in 2002 and 2003. For Lucia, seeing an old friend on the other bench makes things a little tougher from an emotional standpoint.
"I was asked if you enjoy beating a friend, and no, you really don't," Lucia said. "I know how hard he works and we talk on a weekly basis. Our families have shared a lot of good times and obviously he was a big part of our run here when we won our titles. He did an outstanding job."
Just having the Huskies at the .500 mark (5-5-2) this season has been Motzko's most outstanding feat thus far. Picked by most for a lower division finish, the Huskies had a tough 1-3 start to the year, but have lost just twice since then, and that comes despite two devastating injuries in recent weeks. Star goalie Mike Lee, who backstopped Roseau to a state high school title and was the goalie of record in the SCSU program's only NCAA tournament win (two seasons ago) had surgery this week and is out indefinitely. His absence leaves the netminding duties up to rookie Ryan Faragher.
Also missing, maybe for good, is last season's leading scorer Drew LeBlanc, who had a bad spill into the boards a week or so ago and suffered a nasty Joe Theismann-style broken leg that may have ended his college career.
Those absences may leave opportunities for the Gophers, who are still ranked number one in the nation in the major polls despite the loss to Wisconsin last week. Lucia often says that there are archrivals waiting for his team every weekend, as Minnesota is clearly the "big game" for several other teams. But for at least one Gopher, the trip up I-94 will have extra special meaning.
"I can't lie to you, I had my season tickets as a Husky (fan) with my dad and we'd go to a lot of the games," said Gophers defenseman Nate Schmidt, who played high school hockey at St. Cloud Cathedral and will be playing a college game in his hometown for the first time on Friday, as the enemy. "We cheered against every team that came in, including the Gophers. And now the tides have changed."
Motzko and Lucia dealt with something similar when they both coached the Gophers, when they would take St. Cloud native Chris Harrington back to the Granite City to face his old hometown team. The approach most coaches take is to start the hometown kid, and tell them to treat it like any other game. The results are often mixed.
"You just don't know," Lucia said. "Some guys will play great and other guys will stink it out because they try to do too much. The big message we'll get to Nate is don't try to do too much. Don't make it more than it is."
And for a rivalry that may be cooling just a bit, maybe that's the message the fans are sending as well. For the first time anyone can remember, SCSU put out a press release this week letting fans know that there were still tickets available for the Gophers game. Although Motzko said that as of Wednesday, there were fewer than 100 tickets to be sold, and he expected they'd all be gone before game time.
"It's always the big game here," Motzko said. "But once the hoopla wears off, it's just a hockey game. And it wears off very quickly."
What remains, in the midst of an intense rivalry for the fans, is a mutual respect between Motzko and Lucia.
"He's done a great job and he will continue to do a great job," Lucia said of his old friend Motzko. "We just don't want him to do a great job this weekend."