Gophers' Bob Motzko 'humbled' to win Big Ten Coach of the Year

It’s been two months since the Coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world, but University of Minnesota men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko remembers it like it was yesterday.

The Gophers had knocked Notre Dame out of the Big Ten Tournament, and were getting ready to head to Penn State. They were already preparing to play a game without fans. Other college programs were in similar situations. Colorado College was on a bus heading to North Dakota. Bemidji State was on the ice practicing when their athletic director pulled them off to deliver the bad news.

Motzko and the Gophers were getting ready to hit the ice when the NCAA canceled all remaining winter competitions on March 12.

“That morning I just had a bad feeling that that’s the way it was going for everybody,” Motzko told reporters on Monday via Zoom.

It meant the end of the season and careers for seniors Tyler Nanne, Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Joey Marooney. No chance for a Big Ten title, no NCAA tournament and no chance to compete for a Frozen Four. Instead, they had a team meeting about the season being over because of something they had no control over.

“I do remember that meeting and I remember looking right at Tyler Nanne and he dropped his head. For he, Zuhlsdorf and Marooney, we were playing awful well at the end. You just hate for that to happen, any senior,” Motzko said.

Motzko spot with media Monday for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic ended the season. Earlier in the day, Motzko was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year after leading Minnesota to a tie for second in the league. They were projected fifth in the preseason.

The Gophers finished the season 16-14-7, 9-8-7-4 in league play. Minnesota recovered from a slow start, and found its footing after Christmas. The Gophers went 11-6-3 after Christmas, and were 7-1-2 over a 10-game stretch.

Voted on by peers, Motzko beat out Michigan coach Mel Pearson and Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky for the award.

“It was a little surprising. Our league is so close,” Motzko said. “I really didn’t anticipate an award like this would come but the fact that it’s voted on by other coaches, it sure means a lot that accolades come right now. You’re humbled, but I’m also very grateful for the staff I have and we work with. Everyone at Minnesota, we’ve got a great set up, a great staff and I hope that’s an acknowledgment to that we’re doing the right things, moving in the right direction.”

He wasn’t alone. The Gophers took three of the six spots on the All-Freshman Team between Ben Meyers, Jackson LaCombe and Jared Moe. Sammy Walker and Brannon McManus earned honorable mention honors, and Nanne received the team’s Big Ten Sportsmanship Award. The Gophers got it done in class as well, with 11 players earning Academic All-Big Ten honors.

Motzko, like every other college coach, has had to embrace a new normal over the last two months. He’s keeping in contact with his players virtually, with recruits virtually and has two high school kids at home.

He’s trying to stay busy while managing the uncertainty of what the future holds. He has no idea, nobody does, about the future of college hockey. The reality is it largely hinges on when University of Minnesota students can get back on campus, and what happens with football in the fall.

“I think everyone is looking for the group or a group to start the path forward and then piggy-back off of it. Every day we wake up, we keep hoping to hear good news,” Motzko said.

He’s also a dad, but is thankful his high school kids are old enough to do their schoolwork largely on their own. That doesn’t mean life at the Motzko household has been easy the last two months. It started with family time that included old scrapbooks and movies.

“Then the next two weeks, that got a little old and then the couple weeks that followed, alright now we need separation a little bit,” Motzko said. “I’m not built to be home, and they let me know it. They point me to the door and boot me out here every chance they get. I think we’re all ready to get back to some normalcy.”

Motzko has kept in touch with his players every Wednesday through video conferencing, and the players are holding their own virtual get-togethers on Fridays.

Motzko is 34-30-11 in two seasons at Minnesota, and joined Don Lucia and Doug Wood earlier this season in earning his 300th career coaching win. He feels the Gophers are headed in the right direction, especially after finishing strong despite a slow start this year.

“We got pushed around a little bit in the first half but it never phased them, they bounced back,” Motzko said.