'Let's just get this darn season started': Gophers hockey opens Nov. 19

Gophers hockey coach Bob Motzko spoke with reporters on Tuesday as Minnesota opens its season Nov. 19 against Penn State.

There won’t be anything normal about the college hockey season, but University of Minnesota men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko just wants to give the season a chance.

The last time the Gophers were fully together before October, they were preparing to face Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament. The game, and the remainder of the season, were both canceled in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite uncertainty, Motzko tried to sell to his players that there would be a 2020-21 season, even when he himself didn’t know if it would happen.

That all changed when they got a schedule. Minnesota will open its Big Ten only season Nov. 19 against Penn State at 3M at Mariucci Arena. There won't be fans in attendance, other than family of players.

“Let’s just get this darn season started,” Motzko said Tuesday. “Once our guys saw a date and a team, it’s like getting married. We got a ring and a date. You’re seeing them get dialed back in again. They wanted the ring and wanted the date, we got it.”

The Gophers will also enter the season with some expectations. Big Ten coaches voted Minnesota as the preseason favorite to win the league.

Motzko didn’t put much weight on the honors.

“I’d sure like that if that were the case in March. This is November and we haven’t played a game yet. I’ve always thought coaches polls to pick a season are silly,” Motzko said. “I’ll tell you right now in the Big Ten, all seven teams think they can win it the league.”

Junior forward Sammy Walker was selected preseason First Team All-Big Ten. Senior forward Brannon McManus, and sophomore defenseman Jackson LaCombe were selected to the Second Team, and Ben Meyers received Honorable Mention honors.

Walker returns after leading the Gophers with 30 points in 37 games last season, recording career-highs in goals (11) and assists (19). McManus is back as the program’s active leader with 62 career points, including 30 goals, in 102 games. LaCombe recorded 13 points last season.

Motzko likes what he sees from the Gophers so far, without having played a game yet. They’ve had to change practices and alter team meetings to abide by COVID-19 protocols. They’ve split the team into three locker rooms to create more space, film sessions are done in position groups and most team meetings are held on the ice, which allows for players and coaches to be at a distance.

Motzko says the players are relatively unphased by the changes. They just want to play.

“These guys are so resilient. They get it, and that taught me a lesson,” Motzko said.

The biggest challenge will be the schedule. The Gophers host Penn State Nov. 19-20, then three days later, host Ohio State Nov. 23-24. Assuming the schedule holds, Minnesota will play four series between Nov. 19 and Dec. 9. They’ll play four games in a stretch of six days.

Before COVID-19, games were played Fridays and Saturdays, with the occasional Sunday game. This year? Get ready for Monday and Tuesday hockey, and we don’t know the schedule after Christmas yet.

“Playing four games in six nights is something that’s going to be a bigger challenge for all of us, but we’re all going through it. We’re weekend warriors, we will adapt,” Motzko said.

The Gophers will get an early look of how the season could look this week. Michigan, Notre Dame, Arizona State and Wisconsin all play ahead of Minnesota. Motzko says they’ll feel a lot better about the season after the first game.

He’s watched college football proceed, though games have been altered, postponed and even canceled. We saw Major League Baseball survive multiple outbreaks and finish its season. The NHL and NBA finished their seasons in a bubble. It’ll be a challenge, but they’re at least going to try.

“It’s going to be a rocky road, but we’ll get through it once we can get that first game in,” Motzko said.