Grant Potulny hails from Grand Forks, N.Dak., a city of 50,000
that's on the wrong side of the tracks, or, to be more precise,
the wrong side of the Red River--at least as far as the hockey
snobs at Minnesota were concerned. Until Potulny showed up, the
Golden Gophers' hockey program was the ultimate closed shop. The
Minnesota recruiters stayed home, cherry-picking the best seniors
from the top high school hockey state, an approach founded on
pride, pragmatism and parochialism that had paid off in a
fanatical following and no NCAA championships since 1979.
Enter Potulny, a left wing who last year became the first
out-of-state Gopher since 1987. Last Saturday, Potulny, a
22-year-old sophomore, took the biggest shot for the Gophers in
23 years. It traveled only about six feet but resulted in the
power-play goal at 16:58 of overtime that knocked off a superior
Maine team that had been less than a minute from winning the
NCAA title in regulation. The dream goal also ended a night-
marish game for Potulny in which he a) was in the penalty box
for the Black Bears' first goal, and b) deflected a shot into
the Minnesota net for the second Maine goal. Despite being from
North Dakota, Potulny says he has a big M tattooed on his chest,
but if had he played any worse in regulation, Governor Jesse
Ventura would have personally performed laser surgery to remove
it. "I'm thinking, This was the biggest nightmare that ever
happened to me," Potulny said after the game. "I was responsible
for two Maine goals. I had to do something to bail myself out."
He did, was named tournament MVP and donated his stick to the
Hockey Hall of Fame.
Minnesota's victory was attributable, at least in part, to the
serendipity of playing the Frozen Four at home before a
pro-Gophers crowd of 19,324 in the Xcel Energy Center in St.
Paul. The fans' passion, which would have shamed any NHL playoff
crowd; the staunch goaltending of one of the most reviled
athletes in the state; and the evolution of the once legendary
program that was stuck in a time warp conspired to do Maine in.
Make no mistake: This championship was Made in Minnesota. All
the Gophers--the maligned Adam Hauser, who let in a soft goal
but made 42 saves against Maine; wing Matt Koalska, who scored
the tying goal through a screen with 52.4 seconds left in
regulation and who drew the penalty in overtime that set up the
winning power play; center Johnny Pohl, the NCAA's leading
scorer who's so nifty that Minnesota should change its slogan to
Land of 10,000 Fakes--were natives except Potulny, who was
raised a stone's throw (about 50 yards) from the state line.
Still, this will be remembered as Potulny's title, the year the
Gophers went global.
In his third year coach Don Lucia is redrawing the Minnesota
hockey map. He's suited to the task because he straddles two
worlds as a native Minnesotan who played at Notre Dame (he was
crushed when then Gophers coach Herb Brooks called to tell him
they had given the scholarship Lucia was expecting to another
defenseman) and coached at Alaska-Fairbanks and Colorado
College. The 43-year-old Lucia, the first non-Gopher to guide
Minnesota since Glen Sonmor in 1971-72, appreciates the state's
hockey strength but doesn't feel limited by it. There was
something noble and quaint about the Gophers' down-home
approach--especially from 1971 through '81, when they reached
six NCAA championship games and won three--but quaint didn't cut
it when facing the challenges of expanding Division I hockey
(there are 60 teams, up from 50 in 1995-96, including four
others in Minnesota), the junior leagues in North America and
the U.S. development program. With the daringness of Richard
Nixon restoring relations with China, Lucia chose a new path for
Minnesota hockey. "The changes are being received positively,"
he said last Friday. "I've made it clear that Minnesota will
always be our base, but I envision four or five kids being from
the outside. To be competitive, we have to recruit elsewhere."
For a program that hadn't reached the Frozen Four since 1995, the
need to look outside was embarrassingly obvious. Minnesota had
the inherent advantages of selling out a 10,000-seat arena in
Minneapolis with the highest ticket prices ($26) in college
hockey, televising games throughout the state and offering the
uncommon spectacle of skating cheerleaders, but, still, homegrown
players that the Gophers wanted, such as Zach Parise, the North
Dakota-bound son of the former North Stars captain J.P. Parise,
were starting to leave the state or go to junior circuits such as
the U.S. Hockey League, where Potulny honed his game for two
Potulny entered Minnesota as a 20-year-old, and as a freshman he
led the nation with 16 power-play goals. The goals gained him
acceptance in his adopted state, even if most of them were like
the nudge-'em-in pair he scored in the 3-2 semifinal win over
Michigan last Thursday. "At first it was an issue, but now it's
not," Potulny says. "There are 50,000 people at the university.
You're just a number." The operative number for Potulny should be
six, which is how many goals he scored in the NCAA tournament the
past two years.
This business of acceptance is tricky. Hauser, the senior goalie
and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association career leader in
wins (83), had lost just once since February, but the crowd on
Saturday night, mostly out of habit, watched him through the
cracks between its fingers. He's a business major, which is
appropriate considering that Gophers fans have been giving him
the business since his freshman year, when he struggled badly
behind a mediocre team. "This week my father was driving, and a
guy on the radio was doing a list of Minnesota sports figures
that Minnesotans love to hate," says Hauser, who was a
third-round draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers in 1999.
"[Ex-Vikings coach] Dennis Green was on top of the list and
[former Twins pitching coach] Dick Such was in there, and my
father told me I was up there too. Everyone's entitled to an
opinion, but it has taken me four years to figure that out. When
I was 18, I read my name in the paper and thought it was cool.
Then when I saw all the shots I was taking, it stopped being so
Goalie coach Robb Stauber, who was in the net the last time
Minnesota was in the NCAA finals (a loss in overtime to Harvard
in 1989), was the calming voice who helped Hauser realize that
playing goal was more than sticking out a leg to stop a puck. Now
the Oilers are going to have to get him to work on not sticking
out his stick. With 7:50 left in overtime, Hauser tripped Maine
center Robert Liscak but drew no call from referee Steve
Piotrowski, who also ignored Hauser's high stick seconds after
calling Black Bears defenseman Michael Schutte for a trip in the
neutral zone. All this came after Piotrowski had seemingly
suggested earlier in the overtime that nothing less than a felony
would make him blow the whistle. He's also the referee who
ejected Shawn Walsh, the late Maine coach, in an NCAA regional
game against Boston College last year, which did not go unnoticed
by a team that had dedicated its season to Walsh, who died of
renal cancer last Sept. 24. "A bad play by the NCAA," Maine
captain Peter Metcalf said after the finals, referring to the
decision to assign Piotrowski to work any game involving the
Black Bears. "Someone didn't do his homework."
The crowd at XCel Energy Center did its homework, at least in
geography. A sign proclaimed the Gophers AMERICA'S TEAM, a fair
comment considering that Maine had players from Scotland,
Slovakia and four Canadian provinces. Still, 19 Minnesotans and a
North Dakotan don't exactly make a verse from This Land Is Your
Land. Give the Gophers time. They're bringing in recruits from
Austria and Canada this fall. The good news is that Lucia won't
have to convince anyone that Austria and Canada are suburbs of
the Twin Cities.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Golden pond Potulny was mobbed by teammates after scoring the overtime game-winner.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Heavy traffic Hauser, who had 42 saves against the Black Bears, deflected this shot with his shoulder in the third period.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Outtasight Potulny (18) had the best view of his winning goal in sudden death, which slithered between the legs of Matt Yeats.
Hauser is a business major, which is appropriate considering that
Gophers fans have been GIVING HIM THE BUSINESS.
"I was responsible for two Maine goals," Potulny said following
the victory. "I HAD TO DO SOMETHING TO BAIL MYSELF OUT."