Updated: December 16th, 2011 10:22pm
Myers: Stars sticking around keys Gophers hockey success so far

Myers: Stars sticking around keys Gophers hockey success so far

by Jess Myers

We knew Don Lucia could coach, and we knew the duo of Lucia and Mike Guentzel behind the bench was a banner-worthy combination. But the biggest surprise as the Gopher hockey team hits the midseason mark tied with defending national champ Minnesota Duluth atop the WCHA standings is how quickly it's all come together.

It was predicted that Minnesota hockey would be better than the "middle of the pack, fighting for home ice, sitting at home watching others play in the Final Five" morass that had gripped the program for the past three years. It was a combination of negative factors that had made the Gophers - once an every-year participant in the 16-team NCAA tournament - into a team, at best, under consideration. Most notable was a series of one-season wonders (Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson, Nick Leddy, Kyle Okposo, etc.) that had played for Lucia, briefly, on the way to the NHL.

While all of them are now collecting hefty paychecks in places like Denver, Chicago, New York City and Toronto, what they left behind in Dinkytown was messy, as Lucia and his assistants (including the since-departed John Hill and Mike Hastings) scrambled to fill the holes left in their lineup.

Lucia has always noted the teams with a large crop of juniors and seniors generally give themselves a great chance to succeed. But when Senior Night festivities at Mariucci Arena took just a few minutes to honor the team's few fourth-year players, the problem with Gopher hockey was plain to see. At the end of the 2008-09 season (in which the Gophers finished a pedestrian 17-13-7 and went one-and-done in the Final Five) they honored two seniors. Two.

There are seven seniors on the team this year, and one of them (goalie Kent Patterson) has needed less than three months to win 14 games and set the school record for shutouts with six. Another key to the team's success has been health, most notably in the form of sophomore Zach Budish, who had played just one full season of hockey in the previous three years due to a pair of season-ending knee injuries. One came on the football field as a senior at Edina High School. The other, in a clear indication of the overall bad luck for Lucia's program in recent years, came on campus, on a motorized scooter last November.

Another positive sign among the sophomore class has been the impact of defenseman Nate Schmidt, who has played decent hockey preventing the other teams from scoring, while leading the WCHA in assists with 20, in 20 games. Of course, his offensive impact is overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by Nick Bjugstad, who leads the team with 27 points and will spend the holidays in Alberta, skating for Team USA in the World Junior Championships. He'll be joined there by freshman Kyle Rau, whose pesky grit around the net has translated well from high school to college.

By the time they return to this side of the border, the second half will be well underway, and after so many significant road trips in the first half only seven regular season road games remain. That means 10 more chances, plus a likely first round playoff series, to catch the Gophers at home. Which is a good thing if you want to see Bjugstad play college hockey. The days of the one-season wonder may be gone, but the Florida Panthers are expected to come calling at season's end, meaning the big kid from Blaine may be the latest Gopher to be two seasons and out.

No hockey solutions yet in Phoenix

A huge and enthusiastic hockey crowd made its way out of the desert sunshine last weekend and cheered in full throat as a highly-ranked group of skaters from suburban Phoenix took to the ice. Unfortunately for those who want the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes to survive, that near-capacity hockey crowd was packing the Tucson Convention Center, where two of the nation's better college club hockey teams - arch-rivals Arizona and Arizona State - played a pair of games.

Roughly 20 miles outside of downtown Phoenix, the announced crowd of 10,000 or so had plenty of room to spread out inside the 17,000-seat home rink of the Coyotes, and their enthusiasm for the home team was tempered quickly as the Minnesota Wild skated to a 4-1 win last Saturday. Now in their 15th year in Arizona since moving from Winnipeg, the Coyotes remain owned by the league, and their future remains far from certain.

Depending on who you talk to, there is either an owner about to clear up the mess any day now, and secure the team's future in the desert, or there will be an announcement of a move to the north (Quebec City, Kansas City and Hamilton, Ontario, are the most likely landing spots if the team relocates) before the end of the current season.

In 1996, the Coyotes started their run in Arizona playing in the downtown arena that they shared with the NBA's Phoenix Suns. The place was ill-designed for hockey, leaving thousands of fans without a view of one net, but the game and the team were immediate hits in this place where ice is rarely if ever seen in its natural form. After howling for a new rink of their own for years, the Coyotes finally got one in 2003, but it was a mixed blessing.

Surrounded by throng of restaurants, bars, shopping, hotels and free parking, Jobing.com Arena is a beautiful place to watch a game. Patterned closely after Xcel Energy Center, the arena has steep, clear sightlines, open concourses, and even a display of every amateur team in Arizona's hockey sweater in the lobby. There are only a handful, to be sure, unlike the hundreds of sweaters on display in St. Paul, but there's a passionate following among the small, loyal hockey community in the state, and among myriad transplants and snowbirds who brought their love of the sport along when they migrated from points north.

The biggest problem is the rink's location, in far-flung Glendale, which means the Coyotes are 20 to 40 minutes from downtown Phoenix and more than an hour during peak traffic times from the East Valley population centers like Tempe, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert.

Winning, or lack thereof, was a big issue for most of the last decade as well, as the Coyotes floundered with Wayne Gretzky as head coach and went seven straight years without a trip to the playoffs. They have been one of the more competitive teams in the west since Dave Tippett took over for Gretzky, making it into the NHL's round of 16 the past two years. But 1987, when the team still played in Winnipeg, was the last time they won a playoff series, and a deep run in the postseason is desperately needed to re-ignite the deeper passion for hockey in greater Phoenix, which is not a great sports town anyway.

Former Wild television voice Matt McConnell has a prime seat for the Coyotes action this season as the team remains solidly in the hunt for the Pacific Division title and a third straight trip to the playoffs. McConnell, after his stint with the Wild ended, went to Atlanta where he was a Thrashers broadcaster until the end of last season. That experiment with hockey in the South failed and the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. McConnell told us that for now he's commuting between his family's home in Atlanta and his on-air work for FS Arizona, while he waits and hopes for a local owner to buy the Coyotes and keep them in the Southwest for the long-term.

The last thing he, or the hockey community in Phoenix, wants is a front-row seat for another failed experiment with warm-climate hockey.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers