An empty arena delivers last rites to Minnesota Gophers hockey dynasty

The crowd at Mariucci on Friday night for the opening face-off of the University of Minnesota's series against Michigan.

The crowd at Mariucci on Friday night for the opening face-off of the University of Minnesota's series against Michigan. Gopher Puck Live

For decades, a University of Minnesota playoff game was must-see hockey. Of course, there was little chance you could be there in person. Waiting lists for season tickets numbered in the thousands. But from South St. Paul to the Iron Range, be assured the state was tuning in.

Yet the fall of the Gophers dynasty can now be officially called. Photos from the weekend men’s playoff series, captured by Gopher Puck Live, tell you everything you need to know.

Friday night’s attendance: 1,835. Saturday: 1,911. And this was the “announced attendance,” a phrase generally associated with mathematics not recognized by most middle school faculty.

It stands to reason the Gophers would take a nick in attention. Over in St. Paul, the Minnesota state hockey tournament was raging. No one can truly compete with this joyous festival of retro mullets, spectacularly curated peach fuzz, and the most amazing young players this country has to offer.

But compete they have for generations, and you never saw a Mariucci crowd resemble that of a bitter man’s funeral. Diehards were quick to raise the specter of self-inflicted wounds.

They note that the mounting disinterest coincides with the creation of Big 10 hockey in 2014, when the U jilted natural rivals like North Dakota and Duluth for a mid-shelf league and more lucrative TV rights.

Then there were the fan-gouging schemes. The same year the team switched conferences, students who wanted season tickets for hockey were forced to buy seasons for football as well. Prices for everyone else soared, accompanied by mandatory donations with each purchase. Talk of the “Gopher Family” tends to ring hollow when the Gopher’s always trying to raid your wallet.

And all this arrived with a precipitous decline in play. Despite having the most money, the best facilities, and all the prestige of a multi-generation dynasty, the Gophers began their tumble from greatness.

Before resigning last March, Coach Don Lucia managed to retool the team from national power to just the fourth best in Minnesota. In his final four seasons, he’d gone 5-18 against Duluth, Mankato, and St. Cloud.

That erosion was more than evident if you watched earlier this season. New Coach Bob Motzko inherited an undisciplined squad that was consistently infuriating, and often stunningly bad.

Defensemen routinely left men wide open in front of the net. Forwards were known to backcheck with the leisure of trophy wives at a day spa. It wasn’t uncommon for the Gophers to be outshot by a 2-1 margin.

These weren't sins of talent. They were sins of effort, unforgivable for a team with a dozen NHL draft picks. To the old-school fan base, people who tether their adoration to Gopher hockey as children, it was painful to watch. Mariucci played to half-full crowds all season.

The school seemed wholly unaware they were selling hot dogs at lobster prices. As the Big 10 playoffs neared, the athletic department sent an email to season ticket holders, inviting them to get their playoff tickets early. But instead of offering refunds should the Gophers not earn a home series, the money would apply to next year’s tickets.

Fan response to this one-sided proposal was evident in photos from last weekend’s games.

Still, there is reason to believe this story may turn toward a happier arc. The Gophers swept Michigan in the first round. And though even the most charitable fans wouldn’t call them a good team, they clearly improved in most every facet of the game as the season wore on.

Before arriving in Minneapolis, Motzko built one of the nation’s premier programs at St. Cloud State, the country’s No. 1 team. He’s promised to bring old-school Minnesota hockey back to Mariucci. With a superior school, facilities, and bankroll, it’s a proposition much easier than his task in St. Cloud.

Yet he’ll also have to defeat school administrators, who can’t seem to lose their predator’s approach to the fan base, as if they’re auditioning for executive positions in the pharmaceutical industry. One of the weird things about hockey fans is they’re not prone to showing up if their team feels like Pfizer on ice. Last weekend’s games were testament.