Nothing foreign about Nate Condon's offensive explosion for Gophers
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MINNEAPOLIS -- If you spend time around the Gophers hockey team these days, the sight of assistant coach Grant Potulny is one that you've gotten used to.
It's been more than a decade since his overtime winner in the 2002 Frozen Four title game gave the "U" its first NCAA title of the modern era, when Potulny was a sophomore. He played a half-dozen seasons in the minors before making his way back to Dinkytown, where he has become a fixture alongside Don Lucia and Mike Guentzel on the Gophers' bench.
It's easy to forget what a pioneer Potulny was in 2000, when the dawn of a new millennium meant the start of a new era for the Gophers, and for Lucia, who was then the new guy in Twin Cities hockey circles. It wasn't Potulny's skills or his name that made him different, it was the two-letter postal code listed after his hometown on the Gophers roster: "ND."
For more than a decade, the Gophers had been an all-Minnesotan outfit, and their previous coach, Doug Woog, made it clear that if you grew up east of Stillwater, north of Warroad, south of Albert Lea or west of Moorhead, you need not apply. At one point during the Woog era, the Gophers sweaters even featured the outline of the state, with each player's hometown listed on the patch. Needless to say, there were 49 states not included in the fun.
In his second season at the "U" Lucia recruited Potulny while the highly-skilled forward was playing junior hockey in Nebraska, and the coach had no qualms about the fact that this particular prospect hailed from roughly a mile west of the Minnesota border, in Grand Forks.
Fast forward a dozen years, and while the Gophers roster is still always composed 90 percent or more of kids from the State of Hockey, there have been notable impact players in the Lucia era from North Dakota (Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen), Wisconsin (Phil Kessel), Ohio (Jacob Cepis), Colorado (Kellen Briggs), Austria (Thomas Vanek) and even -- gasp -- Canada (Kris Chucko).
So when reporters gather at Mariucci Arena to chat with whoever is hot this week, and they crowd around Nate Condon, who is averaging better than two points per game since the holidays, it's easy to forget the fact that he hails from three hours east of the Twin Cities, in Wausau, or that his line has as many players from Wisconsin and Missouri (Sam Warning) as it does from Minnesota (Zach Budish, from Edina).
"Us out-of-state guys have to stick together, right?" Condon joked this week, adding that he asked to have Tom Serratore (from Colorado Springs) added to the line to have more of them in one place. He's fine with leaving Erik Haula, from Finland, on the top line "I think there are four of us now. We have to stick together."
Condon had produced solid, if pedestrian numbers in the first half if the season, and before the break was told by coaches to "go home and find 10 goals lying round the house." There must have been a few loose assists in between the sofa cushions back in Wausau, as Condon has 16 points (6 goals, 10 assists) in the seven games the Gophers have played since Christmas.
"A big reason why we've taken off a little bit better offensively is the play of Nate," Lucia said. "When we broke at Christmas he was sitting with three goals and there was more there. I think he knew it."
While Potulny has never liked to talk much about his "foreign" status among the formerly all-Minnesota squads at the "U" Lucia again this week credited his assistant coach for breaking down the invisible, unwritten barrier that has led to such an important, although still rare, influx of talent from outside the state. Potulny said that the Gophers' prime recruiting territory will always be the 87 counties that stretch from Lutsen to Luverne, but acknowledged that they get dozens of emails from non-Minnesota kids interested in being a part of the Gophers program.
"We're always going to primarily recruit in-state kids and give Minnesota kids opportunities, but the guys we've brought in from elsewhere, for the most part, have been difference-makers," Potulny said. "You can see why they're here. When I came here it was a little different. Now we have one question: 'Can you play?' That's all anyone cares about in the room."
In this most provincial of hockey states, that's getting to be all anyone cares about in the stands as well.
WCHA does the right thing, saving college hockey in the South
Last season was a bit of a whirlwind for Division I college hockey's one fledgling outpost on the warmer side of the Mason-Dixon line. In the span of a few months, the hockey program at the University of Alabama-Huntsville went from endangered to dead, to amazingly resurrected. The Chargers were the hosts of the NCAA Frozen Four last April in Tampa, but entered this season with many, many questions and very, very few home games, for lack of a conference to call their own.
After much speculation about how much longer hockey at UAH could survive, this week they made the announcement official that starting next season, the Chargers will be the 10th member of the new-look WCHA. With the Gophers and Wisconsin departing for the Big Ten, and several others (North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Omaha, Denver and Colorado College from around here) forming the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the new WCHA will primarily be composed of Division II-level schools, including Bemidji State and Minnesota State, Mankato.
While hockey in Dixie still sounds odd to some, especially with the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers lasting barely a decade before moving to Winnipeg in the summer of 2011, the Chargers have had a competitive program since 1979, and won a pair of NCAA Division II titles in the 1990s, when they had a fantastic rivalry with Bemidji State.
Coached by Minnesota native Kurt Kleinendorst, the Chargers have just one win versus a D-I opponent this season and will play just two D-I home games all season (a loss and tie with Minnesota State in October) but expect to survive and possibly, eventually, thrive as members of the WCHA starting next season.
"We really appreciate the WCHA accepting us into their fine league," said Huntsville athletic director Dr. E.J. Brophy on Thursday. "This puts us in a situation where we go from having scheduling difficulties to having a scheduling windfall, and being able to recruit even more on the national scene."
Coming in a week when temps above zero in Minnesota have been a rarity, this announcement might make the prospect of someday playing WCHA hockey in the land of cotton seem a bit more attractive to a few Minnesota kids as well.