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Why Gopher men’s hockey matters so much to Minnesota — and why it may never again be what it once was

Hockey is the one area where Minnesotans can proudly claim superiority and back it up. And nobody has more of a superiority complex than Gopher hockey fans.

Hockey is the one area where Minnesotans can proudly claim superiority and back it up.

Late last month, Minnesota’s most obnoxious and self-righteous fan base finally got what it wanted: University of Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia stepped down after 19 seasons.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Lucia, approaching 60 and graying faster than a second-term U.S. president, had had enough. Coaching Gopher hockey is the toughest sports job in the Twin Cities, tougher than any pro job, burdened as it is by the unreasonable demands of highly knowledgeable alumni and fans who act like it’s still 1979.

Gopher fans expect a national championship every year. On its face, that isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually refreshing in a state with a long-standing inferiority complex, in men’s sports and pretty much everything else. Vikings fans are used to disappointment. Twins fans long ago lowered their expectations to warm summer nights, an occasional playoff berth and memories of Jack Morris in the 1991 World Series. Wild fans await their team’s annual first-round collapse, and Timberwolves fans … well, at least they finally have a postseason to cheer about.

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Hockey, though, is unique, the one area where Minnesotans can proudly claim superiority and back it up. And that’s why Gopher men’s hockey matters, even to non-puckheads. Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle is not wrong when he says, “I tell people all the time, this program in a lot of ways is the heartbeat of the state.”

Minnesota turns out more youth and collegiate hockey players — male and female — than any other state. Lots of NHLers, too. The boys high school tournament pulls crowds of 19,000 at the Xcel Energy Center; that doesn’t happen anywhere else. Minnesota produced the iconic coach and almost half the roster for the 1980 Olympic Miracle on Ice team, plus many key players on the only other U.S. Olympic gold medal squad from 1960. And it boasts the recently-crowned NCAA men’s champions: Minnesota … uh, Duluth.

And that’s the problem.

The Gophers won their fifth and most recent NCAA title in 2003. Their annual struggle for a sixth, plus mounting fan disenchantment with Lucia and college hockey’s shifting landscape, turned Mariucci Arena from a viper pit into a library.

Last Jan. 7, St. Cloud State, then the top-ranked team in the country, came to Mariucci Arena — beg your pardon, 3M Arena at Mariucci — for the second game of a home-and-home series with the No. 10 Gophers. Both teams returned standouts from the U.S. Junior squad that won world championship gold a few days earlier. Mariucci holds about 10,000, and it should have been packed, jumping, electric.

It wasn’t. Not even close.

The Gophs distributed 7,917 tickets and only 6,269 people showed up, according to University records. That meant 1,648 no-shows, and more than 3,700 empty seats.

Minnesota won, 2-0. But something was clearly missing, and has been for some time. Gopher hockey season tickets sales have fallen by more than 2,300 in six years, from 7,794 in 2011-12 to 5,474 last season, per the University. And this season, for the first time this century, average home attendance fell below 9,000, to 8,726. That average ranked third nationally, behind Wisconsin and North Dakota, as usual, but the trend is troubling.

The reasons? Higher season ticket prices from mandatory donations to athletics; single-game tickets that are among the most expensive in the country; lingering resentment over the 2013 move from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to the Big Ten Conference; missing the NCAA Tournament five times in the last ten years, including two of the last three — the latter by .0001 of a point in the PairWise formula used to compile the field (to complete the knife-twist, it was UMD who edged out the Gophs and went on to win the whole thing). Selling the Mariucci naming rights rankled traditionalists as well.

Former players and many fans have long faulted Lucia for failing to win another NCAA title after back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003 — UMD has won two since 2011 — and some criticism hits the mark. Too often the Gophers play like business associates instead of passionate, committed teammates, even with ten or more NHL draftees in uniform.

But a lot of the carping was needlessly personal. Does it really matter that Lucia graduated from Notre Dame instead of the U, or that he’s not a Lou Holtz-level schmoozer? “I’m not going to make excuses for Don or anyone,” said former Gophers and NHL defenseman Chris McAlpine, a Minneapolis-based player agent. “It’s a tough job. When you’re on the outside, there have been times when I’ve said, ‘Hey, I think they should be doing better,’ or whatever. It’s unfair. It’s always easier when you’re on the outside to say, why are you doing this? We’re all Monday quarterbacks.

“But I think they know the program went through a stretch there when people weren’t happy with what they were seeing, and the results weren’t there. That’s the hard part with the program and these big programs. You’re going to get nit-picked a little bit more.”

Hockey coaches generally hold their jobs longer than football and men’s basketball coaches because it’s not as high-profile a gig. But empty seats in a sport as costly as hockey can be problematic. In 2016, University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez fired coach Mike Eaves, a former Badger great who’d won a national title in 2006, as much for the 4,000 season tickets lost over six years as for back-to-back losing seasons.

It never reached that point with former Gopher athletic directors Joel Maturi and Norwood Teague, or with Coyle. Some alumni wish it had.

In 2011, after the Gophers missed the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year (with Lucia battling a debilitating auto-immune illness through a significant portion of that time), Maturi decided to extend Lucia’s contract. Several former players heard about it, rallied others, and sent Maruri an email opposing it. Maturi ignored them and signed Lucia for three more years. In that time Lucia took the Gophers to the Frozen Four twice, losing in the 2012 semifinals to Boston College, and then the 2014 final to unheralded Union. Even now, seven years later, Maturi will not identify those responsible for the email.

“You have to have thick skin to coach at the University of Minnesota,” Lucia said at his retirement press conference. “Alligator skin right now. That goes with the territory.”

So with new coach Bob Motzko finalizing his staff and diving into recruiting, what expectations are reasonable, and what are not?

Sixteen teams make the NCAA Tournament. Expecting Minnesota to qualify every year is reasonable. Expecting the Gophers to play hard every night is reasonable. Demanding a Frozen Four every year, based on geography and arrogance, isn’t operating in reality. “There are haves and have nots,” said Air Force Coach Frank Serratore, a Minnesotan and a longtime Lucia pal, in an interview with MinnPost. “Minnesota is a program that has access to the top players, especially the top players in Minnesota. They have the power to be able to go out across the country and also internationally, into Canada and Europe, and get the best players. There are some programs that have a chance of reloading every year, and Minnesota is one of those programs, no question about it.

“But to say Minnesota should make the Frozen Four every year, that is a little unrealistic. To reach the Frozen Four you’ve got to be good, and Minnesota should be good every year. But you’ve also got to be a little lucky. Schools like Minnesota, Michigan, Boston College, Boston University, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Denver …they have a better chance of being there more often because they’re the B.C.S. of college hockey programs, because of the resources they have and the power they possess. But there’s no utopia. It’s not easy for anybody. There are no bad programs anymore.”

College hockey has changed dramatically since Herb Brooks coached the Gophers to three NCAA titles in the 1970s. More Americans play in the NHL than ever, with the college game their preferred pathway. And parity reigns in the college ranks. Three times in the last six years the final at-large team chosen for the NCAA Tournament won the championship — Yale in 2013, Providence in 2015, and UMD this year. Four of the five Division 1 teams in Minnesota reached the Frozen Four at least once since 2009. Only Minnesota State hasn’t, though with Mike Hastings behind the bench that’s undoubtedly coming.

Bemidji State Coach Tom Serratore, Frank’s brother, notes more and more college players leaving early for the NHL. That’s been an issue with the Gophers. Lately, Lucia went against his better judgment to recruit younger and younger players, like the Lucius brothers from Grant, who were 13 and 14 when they verbally committed last September. Serratore calls it “crystal ball recruiting,” gambling that someone that young will continue to improve. It’s a tough way to make a living.

Twenty-five Gophers skated in the NHL this season, tops among American college programs. But It’s been awhile since the Gophers developed a strong corps of players that stayed all four years, the key to long-term success. UMD featured six NHL draftees, but its captain and best player was undrafted senior Karson Kuhlman, a left wing with grit and heart signed by the Boston Bruins as a free agent.

Pat Micheletti was the third of Hibbing’s Micheletti brothers to play for Minnesota, from 1982-86, following Joe and Don, who captained national championship teams for Brooks. Pat fell in love with the Gophers as a 9-year-old when Brooks came to Hibbing to recruit Joe. Only the iconic John Mayasich totaled more points as a Gopher (298) than Pat (269), and only Matt DeMarchi and McAlpine accrued more penalty minutes.

Micheletti remembers playing alongside Gopher upperclassmen who demanded the best from themselves and everyone else. That accountability, he said, has been lacking. “I love the program. I don’t pretend to coach from sideline,” Micheletti said. “My biggest thing was, play for the guys that came before you. That was my main goal when I came to the University, to uphold the tradition of the guys who played for me, the coaches, the administrators, the athletic directors. So when I walked out of there, I could say to my parents, I served the University of Minnesota well, and the players and coaches that came before me. I think that is the mission for every player that goes there, and anything after that is gravy.

“I think it’s changed a little, and I don’t know the reason why …. I think we need to get that back at Minnesota, and understand what Minnesota is — Pride on Ice. It’s the fastest game in town, and you should be darn proud to put on the maroon and gold. That needs to be harnessed and brought back. Why are you there? Why are you a Gopher? Are you playing for the guys who played before you? Are you playing for national championships, and not just, ‘Ah, we lost, I’m going to sign a contract’? I think [player] leadership is a big part of it.”

Even if that improves, the U will still have work to do to win back fans. Individual game tickets cost $30 to $70 for most games. That’s too pricey for this frugal a market. For next season, the U lowered season ticket prices in the three cheapest sections by $100, to $600, with no athletics donation required — a smart first step. Micheletti, a popular voice in local radio and television, says the U needs to market the program better. The gregarious Motzko should help there.

There’s one more thing, maybe most important of all. Lucia, at his farewell press conference, challenged Gopher hockey alumni to drop their grievances and move on. “I’m hopeful I’ll look out next year and there will be more people in the seats, because you have to have that,” Lucia said. “For this program to be where it needs to be, the alumni have to be in lockstep behind the program. What they say influences what people think. That’s absolutely critical. The fans have to tap into that. We need to get back to that. If we do, I think Gopher hockey will be where we all want it to be.”

We’ll see how that goes.