Gophers men's hockey hosts Michigan Saturday for Big Ten title

The University of Minnesota men's hockey team hosts Michigan Saturday night for the Big Ten Tournament title. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

It’s been a whirlwind eight months for Bob Motzko, and it started before ever stepping foot on the ice with the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team.

Last July, the unthinkable became reality. His 20-year-old son, Mack, was killed in a car crash. The driver of the vehicle he was in, 51-year-old James Blue, was allegedly impaired at the time and charged with criminal vehicular homicide.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and Bob Motzko helped lead the Gophers to a sweep of Wisconsin and the Big Ten regular season title. Last Saturday, Sammy Walker scored late in the third period as Minnesota beat Penn State 3-2 to advance to this weekend’s Big Ten title game.

The Gophers will host Michigan Saturday night, with both teams in the top-four of the PairWise rankings and guaranteed to be in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of who takes the Big Ten hardware. This week, Motzko was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year for the second time in three seasons. Ben Meyers was named the Player of the Year, and Brock Faber was named the Defensive Player of the Year.

"This is a great time of year as long as you keep winning. Great accolades for our guys, no question this week. Well-deserved," Motzko said. "We dodged a bullet last week, but it sets up for a great championship game with Michigan. We’re in a good spot right now."

"He’s definitely handled it like the Big Ten Coach of the Year would," Faber said of Motzko’s whirwind year.

Motzko has dealt with personal loss, having players get hurt and losing Jack LaFontaine to the NHL. To this point, the Gophers haven’t blinked. They’ve won nine straight, including the last eight of the regular season, heading into Saturday’s Big Ten title game.

"The biggest thing I’ll take to the end is when you believe in your players and you just like being around your team, have a good staff and good players and throw in a goalie, pretty good formula," Motzko said. "They’ve just been a steady group."

The Wolverines are no slouch. They’re 15-3 since the calendar turned to 2022, with one loss to the Gophers and a pair to Notre Dame. The Gophers are 16-3, with losses to Alaska, Michigan and Notre Dame. But none of that really matters come Saturday.

"It’s one game to win the Big Ten playoffs, that’s all it is," said Meyers, also a Hobey Baker Award top-10 finalist.

What they do know is they’ll have an electric atmosphere at 3M at Mariucci Arena on Saturday, bringing back memories to the Gophers’ days in the WCHA. All five sections for students are sold out, and it should be as packed a house as any since Minnesota joined the Big Ten.

Saturday is just the start in the Gophers’ eyes. They haven’t been to a Frozen 4 since 2014, and they haven’t won a national title since 2003. They have to beat Michigan before starting that journey.

"We’re on the clock now. This is when Gopher hockey is viewed to do bigger and better things and we want to sure get after it," Motzko said.

"It’s going to be an exciting weekend. It’s going to be a fun crowd, a fun atmosphere and we’re definitely excited over in that locker room," Faber said.