What happened to the University of Minnesota hockey program?

Dating back to last season, Minnesota has lost 10 of its last 11 games against in-state opponents, including this one against St. Cloud earlier in the season.

Dating back to last season, Minnesota has lost 10 of its last 11 games against in-state opponents, including this one against St. Cloud earlier in the season.

His first love was a hockey team.

On Saturday mornings, a prepubescent Reed Larson would climb into the family station wagon, dad Wes squiring him from south Minneapolis to the Barn, home to University of Minnesota hockey since 1949.

It was the late '60s. Larson would lace up his skates while inhaling the arena's funky broth of stale popcorn, damp wood, and Zamboni exhaust.

He'd spend the next hours tearing up the ice during open skating, leaving only when someone chased him off. Then the future Roosevelt High star would find a place to hide.

"There were lots of nooks and crannies in there," says Larson. "I'd disappear and wait to come out when they started letting people in for the night's Gopher game.... It was those early memories that began my lifelong love for the program."

Larson, who would play for Minnesota and become a three-time all-star for the Detroit Red Wings, was among the blessed. Generations of Minnesota kids could only dream of wearing the iconic maroon and gold "M" jersey.  


As former Gopher and Mr. Hockey winner Joe Dziedzic notes, "When I was being recruited, it was like anybody could make an offer, but if Minnesota called.... "

It remains a beautiful dream to this day. Five national championships. Thirty-six NCAA tourney appearances. More than 60 players on U.S. Olympic squads. Gopher hockey is part of Minnesota's cultural quilt like nothing else.     

But the likes of Larson and Dziedzic can now be counted among the brokenhearted.

At Mariucci Arena, sold-out crowds have given way to lightly spackled congregations witnessing struggle. Games that once came with almost Biblical guarantee of victory are a thing of the past.

Where the Gophers used to have permanent residence among the nation's top 20, they're no longer even the best in Minnesota, losing 10 of their last 11 games against in-state opponents. And what was once a prideful alumni network has morphed into a full-scale revolt.

Gross misconduct
On a Saturday night in December, the Mariucci scoreboard spurs the faithful: "Let's Get Weird!"

The Gophers have already taken care of that.

Stacked with 12 NHL draft picks, they're struggling to stay with Big Ten bottom-feeder Ohio State.      

When the New York Rangers selected defenseman Brady Skjei three years ago, he became the 18th Gopher picked in the first round of the NHL draft. Almost 200 more have gone in later rounds.

Yet it's this very lodestone of talent that's come to haunt the team.

"At a program like Minnesota, you're going to have high-end players," says former Ohio State Coach Mark Osiecki. "But you can't have your whole roster of that."

The Gophers do.

Watch these days, and you'll witness less a team than a constellation of child stars. Some were signed to scholarships as young as age 15, coated with praise since their grade school days. It's akin to building a football team where everyone fancies himself a star quarterback. That's left no one to do the yeoman's work of winning hockey.

Each game provides fresh fodder for the program's decline, says one NHL scout. A disregard for fundamentals. Players giving up on their man in the defensive zone. An aversion to battling in front of the net. The habit of coasting to victories. Or, worse, losing to the less talented but hungrier.     

"They run around all over with no discipline," says Gopher alum Kevin Hartzell. "They don't do the little things that are the most important. Getting traffic inside the dots. Winning puck battles along the boards. Never getting beat up the ice so you don't give up odd-man rushes. What we've seen this program become is a glorified high school team."

Contrast this with Minnesota's supposedly lesser neighbors, schools like Duluth, Mankato, and Nebraska-Omaha, which have come to surpass the Goliath of Dinkytown.


Those teams may get the "leftover" players, those lacking the pedigree to find their way to the West Bank, says Pete Waggoner, a writer for Minnesota Hockey Magazine. "What happens is those players have to be a little more workmanlike, a little more lunch pail. You've got guys that are hungry, guys that are proud to wear that sweater and will do whatever they can to best represent it."

The Gophers could not be more different. According to alumni who've soured on the program, Minnesota's star system has bred self-admiration, stroked and infantilized by a culture that doesn't prize selflessness and hard work.

"You tell a 10th grader or even a ninth grader they're going to be a Gopher, and for even the best of kids it's going to be hard for them to think they're not better than other people," says one former player.

Another is more succinct: "They're arrogant little jerks. They've been raised to be the kings of the land because they're youth hockey players that are great. But they're jerks. There's no other way to put it."

And this chorus of critics lays blame at the feet of one man: Coach Don Lucia.

"It's his job to set the tone for his program," says an NHL scout. "At Minnesota, what I see is a coach living off past accomplishments."

Five for fighting
College hockey has grown up. What used to be a smattering of Division I programs dominated by a handful of powers now pushes 60 teams. Talent once sowed exclusively in Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts now rises from Florida, Arizona, and even Tennessee. Meanwhile, the game has gone from amateur pastime to feeder affiliate for the NHL.

Lucia ranks among college hockey’s winningest all-time coaches, yet the Gopher hockey program’s struggles have reached epic proportions.

Lucia ranks among college hockey’s winningest all-time coaches, yet the Gopher hockey program’s struggles have reached epic proportions.

A decade ago, roughly 20 percent of NHL rosters consisted of college players. Today, the number is closer to one in three, making the collegiate ranks the fastest-growing path to million-dollar contracts.

Former Denver University coach George Gwozdecky says that puts enormous stress on a coach's most crucial duty: getting kids to play for their team, instead of kneeling at the altar of singular glory.

"Everybody has their habits and their own hidden agendas," says Gwozdecky. "As coach, you want to make sure the only agenda on everybody's mind is to play for your roster. The challenge that presents for the coach is getting them to put their egos aside for the benefit of the team."

Lucia's resume would suggest he's the man for this job. Now in his 17th season at Minnesota, the 57-year-old coach floats in rarefied air. He ranks among Division I's top 10 in career wins, including national titles in 2002 and 2003. Over the past four full seasons, the Gophers have had more wins than any other program.   

Detractors don't argue with the quantity of wins. It's the drumbeat of embarrassing losses to nether teams, the string of playoff defeats to squads with superior grit. As they see it, a program built on Herb Brooks' dictatorship of hard work and selflessness has deteriorated into a confederacy of excuses.

Take a game earlier this season against Minnesota-Mankato. The Mavericks erased a two-goal lead with less than four minutes remaining, then completed the comeback with an overtime dagger.

After the loss, Lucia fingered a freshman's mental error for allowing Mankato to climb back into the game.  

When pitted against grittier foes with equal and even lesser talent, Lucia’s Gophers have chronically shown they can’t win ugly.

When pitted against grittier foes with equal and even lesser talent, Lucia’s Gophers have chronically shown they can’t win ugly.

Weeks later, an NHL scout still broils.

"That sums up the state of the program. There's always an excuse," he says. "You blow a two-goal lead with three minutes in your own barn against an average team, and it's a freshman's fault. It's another example of how they've lowered their standards, and Lucia gets away with it, having an explanation for everything. It's like because they were once good, they don't have to work to be excellent now."

The problem starts with recruiting. More teams mean more schools are plying the rinks of Minnesota. So Lucia has taken to signing players before they're old enough to drive.

The Gophers already have five commitments for the 2017-2018 season. Shattuck-St. Mary's forward Scott Reedy announced his choice in 2014. He'd just turned 15. Luverne's Jaxon Nelson also pledged to play for the Gophers. He may not see the Mariucci ice until 2018, yet he committed last April, weeks after his 15th birthday.

It's risky business. With three years of maturation to go, no one knows if that kid will eventually show up as a rounded player or a cosseted princess.

"What it's become if you're the University of Minnesota is you get all the low-lying fruit and you get it early," says Waggoner. "The program has become jumpy when it comes to recruiting. As a result, it's fallen into a trap. They generally get a vast majority of the players they want, but the teams don't achieve to the perception of how good they are."

During his 14 seasons in the NHL, Larson found a truth within successful teams.

"Character is huge," he says. "A team with no talent and character still goes farther than a team with all talent and no character."

That thesis was on display in 2014, when Union College pulled off hockey's greatest upset since the Miracle on Ice.

The Gophers were making their 12th appearance in a NCAA title game. On that evening in Philadelphia, Minnesota was stocked with 14 NHL draft picks. Union consisted of afterthoughts.

But they would humble the Gophers, firing 50 shots and winning 7-4. It was a testament to the old-school clichés: that grit, hustle, and discipline are the coin of the realm in this game.  

The loss gnaws to this day, but its lesson resonates more than ever.

Alumni are quick to note that character players still populate every Gopher team. Yet the game remains a defining moment of Lucia's tenure.  
"The Union game was the most high-profile example of how the program under him falls short," says a pro scout. "Minnesota consistently – and it's only gotten worse with time – doesn't show the discipline required to be an elite program."

The dysfunctional family
The turning point came a decade ago with a household name: Zach Parise.

The Shattuck-St. Mary's star was the quintessential Gopher of yesteryear, bringing an ore miner's work ethic to both ends of the ice. He was a Herb Brooks prototype. But Brooks didn't want him playing for Minnesota.

As alumni tell it, the legendary coach believed his former program had devolved into a bejeweled shell, where ice time was promised instead of earned, and names on the back of jerseys meant more than the "M" on the front.  

He told Parise his development would take a hit if entrusted to Lucia. Parise chose North Dakota instead.

Other former Gophers were surprised, but not shocked.  

"Parise is exactly the kind of character guy you want representing your program," says one alum. "And here you had Herb Brooks telling him he should go to North Dakota. When the godfather of Gopher hockey doesn't trust Donnie Lucia, what does that tell you?"

More blue chippers have followed the path leading away from Mariucci. Blaine's Riley Tufte will play for UMD next season. Edina's Kieffer Bellows, son of former North Star Brian Bellows, has committed to Boston University. Burnsville's Brock Boeser, a first round draft pick, skates for North Dakota.

If there was ever a player with a Gopher pedigree, it was Chaska's Shane Gersich. Dad Frank played for Minnesota in the 1980s. Uncles Neal, Aaron, and Paul Broten are Gopher legends.

But Gersich, a Washington Capitals pick, plays for North Dakota.

"It's a combination of things," says an alum. "... Lucia doesn't invest in [the players] to work to become great. Then, when there's 'I' guys on the roster, he doesn't rein them in. How are these kids going to reach their potential as players if there's no accountability?"

Brooks' misgivings endure. In more than a dozen interviews for this story, the same take emerges.

"If a kid is going to Minnesota," says one NHL scout, "concerns are openly discussed in our rooms about how it might affect his development. If one of our players is heading to say, North Dakota or UMD or [Nebraska-Omaha], we are comfortable with them going to any of those places."

Alums point to the Florida Panthers' Nick Bjugstad as the latest example of immense gifts that were underserved at Minnesota.

Bjugstad "has more talent in his thumb than most will ever have," a former Gopher says. "He was a good college player who's now exploding into a star in the NHL."    

Other players – like Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler and Nick Leddy of the New York Islanders – have likewise blossomed after leaving.  

Bjugstad can't explain the post-Gopher development boom. "That's a good question. Maybe it's because some guys make better college players than pro players and vice versa."

Meanwhile, acrimony between alumni and Lucia has continued to fester. What began as organic rift between an outsider coach – Lucia graduated from Notre Dame – and a dynastic tradition has widened during the post-championship years. After winning two titles a decade ago, Lucia had no use for them, treating long-tethered relationships with indifference, if not disrespect, alumni say.

"What makes the relationship between the head coach and alumni unique is many of us live in the Twin Cities and Minnesota, and still are involved with hockey, be it as youth coaches, junior hockey, whatever," says a former player. "Ties to the local hockey community have helped make the program. But he couldn't care less. When guys reached out, he blew them off. When there were alumni events, he barely popped his head in."

The chasm deepened when Lucia hosted a Notre Dame fundraiser at his home a few years ago. Alumni chafed. He'd never done that for Minnesota, they charged.

They further seethed the following year when Lucia courted former players only after the program needed money for a Mariucci renovation campaign.

These days, the relationship has become reality TV meets Lifetime movie running in perpetual syndication.     

An email sent to Gopher hockey alumni demonstrates the extent of the brokenness. In 2011, after four seasons in which Minnesota was a collective seven games above .500, reports surfaced that then athletic director Joel Maturi was working on a contract extension for Lucia.

A few alumni responded with a mass email.

"There are thousands of Golden Gopher hockey fans that are in agreement with former Gopher hockey players...who are beyond shock and concern for the state of the hockey program," the letter began. "If you were to poll these former would find a majority who would vote to remove Coach Lucia and his staff."

Lucia had failed not only as coach, it continued, but also as a "judge of talent" and a "recruiter." It further asserted that "recruits are encouraged to turn pro because scouts don't feel they will progress in the program."

The email was a call to arms to prevent Minnesota from becoming a "laughing stock." Alumni were urged to unite for Lucia's ouster. Otherwise, it warned, "A contract extension would be devastating."

Maturi announced a new three-year deal months later, saying, "Don is a championship-caliber coach and is deserving of this extension."

Lucia coolly downplays the rift: "I'm going to do the best job I can.... It's impossible to please everybody."

To which one former player counters, "I love Gopher hockey. It's part of the fabric of who I am. And it's become fuckin' painful."

Delay of game
But that pain also arises from forces outside Lucia's control.

Hockey's evolution and the shiny allure of the NHL bait more young players. Where four-year careers were once the norm, defecting underclassmen are now commonplace.

"Players' aspirations have changed," Minnesota alum Craig Sarner says. "Some of us were lucky enough to live the dream of playing for the Gophers, and if you had a professional career after that, you were fortunate. A lot of players come through now looking at it as a steppingstone to the NHL. That makes the coach's job harder, but it also gives him the opportunity to recruit character guys, the best players he thinks will take ownership in the program."

Many regard this as Lucia's greatest trespass.

"It's on him to say to his players, 'I don't care if you don't give a shit to bleed maroon and gold,'" says a former Gopher. "'But while you're here, you're going to bleed maroon and gold.'"

Last summer, All-American defenseman Mike Reilly decided to forsake his final season to sign with the Wild. Months earlier, teammates Adam Wilcox and Brady Skjei announced they too were leaving for the pros. More than 20 players have departed early during Lucia's tenure.

Former Hobey Baker winner Brian Bonin believes if players are enabled to distraction, it has the potential to undermine the entire program.

"You have no sense of anybody but yourself, yet it affects everybody else," he says. "It affects your attitude toward the team, the university, and the tradition.... In order for that not to happen, players must have trust in the coach. A player has to believe he's there and what he's trying to do will help both you and the team succeed."

The Don  
Big Ten Network host Rick Pizzo says reports of a Gopher Armageddon are greatly exaggerated.  

Could it be that a long-spoiled fan base is oblivious to the realities of parity?  

"If you asked hockey fans to name the top five programs in college hockey, if you asked that 10 years ago, Minnesota would have been in that conversation," Pizzo says. "Five years ago, Minnesota would've been in that conversation. And today, Minnesota is still in the top five and it's not going anywhere anytime soon."

Ryan Kennedy, a writer for the Hockey News, says programs tend to follow two tracks. Schools like Union, Mankato, and St. Cloud are stocked with older players who were seasoned in juniors after leaving high school.

"They build organically with maybe a draft pick or two," Kennedy says. "But I kind of joke it's a team of 23- and 24-year-olds."

That's not Minnesota, Michigan, or Boston College, whose rich traditions land the best young talent.

But with so many young stars playing only two or three seasons before taking flight, it's become all the more difficult to compete against older teams.

Kennedy's advice to the Gopher faithful: Save yourselves some heartbreak and adjust your expectations.      

"The Gophers are caught in a catch-22," former FOX North announcer Frank Mazzocco says. "They'll typically get blue-chip players. What happens to these players? They get plucked off the vine faster."

At the same time, increased competition has forced Minnesota to sign players at younger and younger ages.

Lucia was conscripted into the practice reluctantly, contending the Gophers either had to play or lose out.

"It was a lot easier when you got to know the kids better," he says. "You had a better sense of where they were in their development stage when they're 17- and 18-year-olds rather than 15- and 16-year-olds."

What Lucia's detractors fail to acknowledge, says those who believe the criticism unfair, is that college hockey is under assault. Players fast-track development by leaving high school early for junior teams. Then they commit to colleges knowing full well they're gone when an NHL club offers a contract with enough zeros.   

"These aren't necessarily Gopher problems," says Minnesota alum Ben Clymer, a FOX North analyst. "They're college hockey realities."

Lucia wishes the simpler days would return, yet he knows they belong to history as the age of recruits creeps lower still.   

"The hard part becomes, at some of these ages, you don't know when you have to do it," Lucia says. "Somebody else could come behind the scenes, bring in a kid and offer him and tell him he's got a week to decide.... All of a sudden he's gone. He's off the board. And so that's sometimes the hard part. Do we have to recruit this kid in 11th grade? Do we have to recruit him in 10th grade? Or do we have to recruit him in ninth grade?"

Either way, players like Bjugstad say the fealty to the "M" at center ice has never faded.

"The players know the significance of putting on that logo," he says. "...There was nothing more I ever wanted than to play for the U and win a national championship."  

Lucia agrees. All those banners fluttering above the rink haven't lost their luster. "What we say to all of our guys is embrace the tradition, but also create your own tradition."

The stick handlers
University execs haven't done Gopher hockey any favors.

"There's been a commercialization that's taken it out of strictly being a college program," says Sarner. "It's no longer about the students or the student athletes. Money has become the driving force."  

The state's flagship school dines at the Big Ten trough through football and men's hoops. This year, Minnesota is projected to pocket about $35 million in TV cash.  

But this meant that Minnesota was also required to join a new Big Ten hockey league, bidding farewell to longstanding rivalries. Seven o'clock puck drops in Grand Forks and Duluth were swapped for yawners with Penn State and Ohio State.

"Playing on the Big Ten network, playing against Penn State. Are you kidding me?" asks Waggoner. "...The university showed it didn't understand nor did it care that in hockey proximity breeds rivalries. The university got their money and Minnesota's core fans are now apathetic."

And as the Gophers have declined, so have their opponents.

"I think the most shocking story in college hockey is how bad the Big Ten is," says the Hockey News' Kennedy. "We all assumed it was going to be a sort of elite conference, and that the other schools would be hurt by it. Instead, it's been the other way around."

As a result, alumni see cash-first administrators with no reverence toward the rich hockey tradition – or any comprehension of its systematic decay.

"They're like, 'Don's a nice guy and he's pleasant to be around,'" says a former player. "'His teams win a lot and he does have a couple of national championships. Why would we want to make a change?'"

Change on the fly
Lonely is an empty Mariucci on an afternoon in December. Three days have passed since St. Cloud swept Minnesota, providing more ammo to the notion that the Gophers are no longer golden.

This is the Pride On Ice's new normal.

During this practice, special teams are the order of the day. Thoroughbreds wearing cages stop on a dime, then accelerate like machines. One makes a sweet dish to a linemate, who rips a one-timer so powerful the eyes fail to keep up. Yet languor dominates. Players stand around a lot. Most of the chatter comes from coaches.  

"Gopher hockey is at a crossroads," says Waggoner, "as to what's expected, what it stands for."