On the night the banner went up at Amsoil Arena before a 1-1 tie game, Minnesota came out of locker room early to sit on the bench.
Saturday night was one for Minnesota-Duluth to celebrate. The leaves changed colors, summer came to an end and in its place sat a new hockey season. One year was over, one which the Bulldogs ended as national champions between April snowfalls in St. Paul.
On the night the new season began, four sections of students were ready the minute the gates opened. A packed building came in to see Minnesota-Duluth celebrate the recent past and try to continue a recent trend of wins against an in-state rival.
It was there, before a puck drop which would signify the future for two teams, sat the Gophers on the bench to witness its own “Sliding Doors.”
Missing the 2018 NCAA Tournament by .0001 — a fact mentioned to great applause by Mike Sertich during the ceremony — to Minnesota-Duluth when six games all went the wrong way, much of the 2018-19 Gopher campaign starts as a “what if” scenario that sees a different bench. What could have been if the maroon and gold team in the Twin Cities, not the Twin Ports, was the final at-large NCAA Tournament bid?
What wouldn’t be different?
Leading the way for the Gophers now is Bob Motzko, who earlier in the week tempered expectations for his team, wanting to build throughout football season and into baseball; to see his team give “30 seconds of hell” each shift by going all out the entire time.
Unlike several of his players, Motzko wasn’t at Amsoil Arena when the two teams played exactly a year ago. Neither were four defensemen nor Mat Robson and Sampo Ranta, two players who helped the Gophers tie against the top team in the nation on a night where Minnesota began 2018-19 by snapping an eight-game losing streak against UMD.
Robson, who sat out the first half of last season due to being ineligible, made 31 saves to keep the Gophers in the game down the stretch against a Minnesota-Duluth offense picking up steam. Only a third-period power play goal by Peter Krieger got past the junior in his first time in Duluth.
“It was awesome. I love playing on the road,” he said. “Last year I got a taste of Wisconsin, their student section and Penn State towards the end of the year and Duluth, they’re right up there. Great student section and crowd, they’re behind their team and we’re looking forward to having our fans loud tomorrow as well.”
Ranta, meanwhile, began his college career by picking out a spot midway through the first period that would be difficult for Hunter Shepard to get. He didn’t. Fittingly the Finn — the only player in Saturday’s lineup who didn’t commit to the Gophers when Don Lucia was the head coach — had the first goal of the Motzko era.
“It felt good. It’s something you dream of for a long time and to play my first game on (a night like this) was a moment,” said Ranta.
Shepard settled down, as did Minnesota-Duluth’s defense, with the group of seven now-sophomore and juniors not allowing another goal among Minnesota’s 28 shots. It was to be expected for a team trying to find its way and a coach still getting into the rhythm of his new team’s lines.
“I thought overall…we saw some character and heart with our guys and their battle level. The things that we didn’t get going, I just want to flip the calendar because in a month we’re going to be better,” said Motzko about his team’s opening game performance. “We survived tonight and we’re going to have survive tomorrow too, but we’re going to get better.”
At the end of the night, that’s the goal. To get better. Minnesota-Duluth wasn’t in a position to improve upon not having a ceremony as national runner-up 365 days ago. Neither is Minnesota.
The goal — one reason why the Gophers came out to watch — is to know the feeling. What could be their own 30 seconds of hell was anything but. Ranta thought it was cool and something he wants to do someday too.
“How great for our guys to watch it and put the seed in there?” said Motzko. “Why sit in the locker room and not be a part of that? It would have been a terrible loss for us to not witness what the feel that comes with that.”
The other reason for Motzko and Minnesota to sit and watch on the night the banner went up was in the spirit of sportsmanship.
“I think that’s one of the things in college sports is the camaraderie we have. We’re from the state of Minnesota so our guys know their guys,” he said. “We needed to be out there and show respect to our in-state partner that had a great accomplishment a year ago.”
After a tie in Duluth, the two coaches shook hands. Both teams play again Sunday in Minneapolis.