Gophers get 3 players back from World Juniors, take 10-0 record to Wisconsin

The Gophers men's hockey team is off to a 10-0 start, its best since 1940, after beating Arizona State Monday night 6-4 to complete a series sweep. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

Bob Motzko and the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team had a surprise for Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Brock Faber Wednesday night.

The trio flew home from Canada with their gold medals and USA jerseys, fresh off beating Canada 2-0 to win the World Junior Championships. The Gophers gathered at 3M at Mariucci Arena to reunite with their teammates, and share some memories.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the team couldn’t be together to watch the gold medal game. Motzko watched it from his home, and players made their own plans.

"We all sat in the living room and cheered. It’s emotional, we’re vested into USA Hockey for life. It’s emotional, this is a big deal. There was some hooting and hollering going on in the Motzko house, I can tell you that," Motzko said.

"Just seeing them succeed at the World Junior tournament, I mean we all grew up watching it. Having your teammates go there and win gold is pretty special for all of us," junior defenseman Ben Brinkman said.

The even better news for Motzko: He’ll have LaCombe, Johnson and Faber available and in uniform as the Gophers head to Wisconsin this weekend. Even if he preferred they take some time off.

Motzko arrived to the rink Thursday, having told them to take day the off and rest. They were all out on the ice, getting in a skate.

"They’re anxious to play. I told all three of our guys they don’t have to play this weekend. I said they could all have the weekend off if they needed it, and I actually encouraged it. Of course they told me no," Motzko said.

After nearly a month off over the holidays, the Gophers didn’t show much rust against Arizona State. They beat the Sun Devils 4-1 and 6-4 to improve to 10-0 on the season. They’re the No. 1-ranked team in the country, and they’re off to their best start in more than 80 years.

Motzko doesn’t keep win charts or standings in the locker room. They’re keeping it focused on one game at a time.

"We know that it’s about the end of the year. The beginning of the year doesn’t matter too much. Just because we’re winning now, we can’t take that for granted. We’ve got to keep pushing to get better," sophomore forward Bryce Brodzinski said.

The season started with sweeps of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan before starting 2021 with the sweep of Arizona State. LaCombe, Johnson and Faber are trading in their red, white and blue USA jerseys for Minnesota maroon and gold.

The Gophers won’t need much motivation this weekend, heading to face one of their biggest rivals in the Badgers.

"We’ve never really liked Wisconsin at Minnesota. I’ve got a couple buddies who went to Wisconsin, they’re my friends, not that weekend. When we’re playing them, they’re opponents and I really don’t like them. We’re ready to go in there and it’s a big weekend for us," Brinkman said.

"One team will be Maroon, one team will be red. The line will be drawn in the sand when we pull into town, trust me," Motzko said. "You put your jersey back on, you know where your allegiance lies and these guys want to get back at it."

It’s a battle between the top two teams in the Big Ten, and the Gophers have an eight point lead over the Badgers in the league. But they’re not about to feel comfortable with where they’re at.

There are still nine series remaining in the regular season, and a lot can change in 18 games. They trailed for the first time all season against Arizona State, and at some point they will lose, probably.

"We are going to get punched in the nose one of these nights and then we’re going to find out how we respond after what we’ve done. Those are lessons we have to have by playoff time, and we’re going to get them," Motzko said.