Game On! Minnesota had the chance to visit with new Gopher head coach, Bob Motzko, as he looks ahead to the 2018-19 season and his mission to make “Pride on Ice” more than a slogan.
QUESTION #1: I know you’ve been at the University of Minnesota before as an assistant coach, but what’s been your biggest surprise taking the reins as head coach of the Gopher hockey team?
Coach Motzko: Well, the biggest thing was even though I was here before, in the assistant coach role you can hide a little bit. As the head coach, the responsibility hits you in the head. The demands for your time are a lot more. I knew it was there when I was working with Don [Lucia], but it’s a lot, as it should be for a program like this. That, and I’m commuting in traffic again, which is taking some adjusting to.
Three words that mean the world to Gopher fans.
QUESTION #2: As you settle into your new role as head coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team, what are you hearing from Gopher fans and alumni you bump into around town?
Coach Motzko: The majority of the comments have been enthusiastic and supportive. They’re mostly saying “Good Luck” and “We’re excited to have you here.” Of course, people will tell me they want us to keep playing our in-state rivals, and things like that. But it’s been mostly positive, and we all understand the expectations of Gopher fans and this hockey community.
QUESTION #3: One of the things I was most curious about with you coming in—was what you’d make of the squad once you were on the ice with the guys. So, what did you find under the hood when you got here, what’s the identity of this hockey team?
Coach Motzko: The truth is I inherited this group, and they inherited us. We are not going to change the group here. Change will come with time, as we focus in certain areas, but I’m going to give this group everything I have. We can’t change what’s here, but I’ve told them we have trust in them. It gets easier when you get on the ice and start coaching them. And I have to say the first couple weeks, it wasn’t real comfortable. There was a feeling-out period for two weeks. It was real quiet. You had two camps staring at each other. I think they were figuring out what we were about, and we were figuring out what they were about. But by about week three reality set in, and we noticed more communication and jump. The guys just started to play.
As I look at our group, we like our forwards. We have a lot of depth up front. And our goaltending has history. [Eric] Schierhorn has played over 100 games and was twice named Big Ten goalie of the year, and [Mat] Robson really made a name for himself last year.
The question for this team will be how far can our defensive core come. We are very inexperienced and young on the backend. Clayton Phillips joined us mid-season and [Sam] Rossini has only played 14 games. Five out of our eight defensemen have played very few games. Even a kid like Tyler Nanne was away from hockey for two years with health issues. The question will become if that inexperienced group can make strides. But we are starting behind, and we have a long way to go.
Expect to see a return to Gopher teams built around blue-chip puck moving defensemen.
QUESTION #4: Your bio always makes a point that you grew up a Gopher fan and you obviously were an assistant 2001-2005 when we had the great run with back-to-back National Championships. Can you talk about some of your favorite Gophers when you were growing up and coaching those teams?
Coach Motzko: As I’ve listened to the older group, and I’ve made a point to meet with over 100 alumni so far as we bring them back into the fold—many of them said John Mayasich. They’ll tell me he was the best there ever was, but I never saw him play. For me, growing up it was Neal Broten. I met Neal for the first time this summer at a golf tournament, and while I’m sure it wasn’t a big deal for Neal, it was for me. When I think of Gopher hockey he’s the first name that jumps out at me. Neal was a great player from the State of Minnesota, he came from up North, was a little undersized, but was highly talented and went on to success at the next level, including a Stanley Cup with the Devils. He was just superb.
The other thing I think Gopher hockey has been known for is elite defensemen like Mike Crowley, Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin, and Keith Ballard. This program has done a terrific job through the years developing powerful, puck-moving defensemen. That defensive core, and that type of player I believe is synonymous with Gopher hockey, whether it’s a guy like Alex Goligoski or further back Larry Olimb. Whether a player from our current group emerges or not, that type of elite defenseman is something we will be bringing back here again.
We expect to continue to recruit the best players inside the state and outside the state. At one time, it used to be considered controversial to recruit outside the state. But I have a theory, and I need to look more into this. But I believe a lot of the people who play for Minnesota never leave. Look at Lou Nanne who came from Sault Ste. Marie and never left. Thomas Vanek married his sweetheart and stayed. Murray Williamson came from Winnipeg and his family settled here, and now his granddaughter plays for the Gophers. Even Peter Kennedy (Nova Scotia) is still here. When you look at that, I think this program has the power to turn kids from all over into Minnesotans.
Vanek and Nanne are examples of International Gopher stars who became lifelong Minnesotans.
QUESTION #5: Have you seen the movie or read the book The Outsiders? It seems perception would have the Gophers playing the part of the preppy Socials with sweaters tied around their necks—while our in-state rivals would be the rough-and-tumble Greasers, with nothing to lose. Do you think your arrival will make the Gophers harder to play against and more blue collar?
Coach Motzko: Well, I’m from Austin, Minnesota. It’s a meat-packing city, and I guess I’ve always gravitated toward the more blue-collar side of town. I’m not going to say we need to bring that back, because Gopher hockey has been an elite program and has certainly had some toughness. But if that’s the perception, I’d just say that we know to be successful you’d better have some grit, you’d better have some tenacity. We know that, and our teams will have that.
The Gophers will begin to more closely resemble the blue-collar Greasers than the sweater clad Socs.
QUESTION #6: You’ve won a gold medal in the World Juniors, a National Championship in Juniors, and obviously were an assistant on those two National Championship teams at Minnesota—but you haven’t won a National Championship as a head coach. What would it mean for you to win a National Championship as a head coach?
Coach Motzko: Honestly, you can’t let your brain go there. Of course, that’s your goal, but as a head coach your job is putting your team together. Our brains go to doing the work. It’s about what kind of staff you want, what type of team and how we want to build it. As coaches, that’s our fuel. It’s about the journey, not the destination. And putting that journey together.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how wonderful my 13 years at St. Cloud were, and how difficult it was to leave. But I left to accept another challenge. And this journey is about to begin, and hopefully it will take us to the top.
QUESTION #7: You have seven Edina guys on the team this year, including Mr. Hockey winner Sammy Walker. Do you think having the middle name GILES gives you an unfair advantage when recruiting kids from the small town on the west side with a dream?
Coach Motzko: Wow! That is good. That’s definitely the first time someone has asked me that. I hope there is some luck in that trait, as he [Curt Giles, Edina High School Head Coach] has had a ton of success. It can’t hurt!
When your name is Bob GILES Motzko, you better have some cake in the team room!
QUESTION #8: Your predecessor, Don Lucia, had a pretty great head of hair. Almost a Chia-Pet-like curl. Now you come in as the bald bench boss. What impact do you think your lack of flow might have on the boys?
Coach Motzko: When you look across the land, there is a new look emerging with the shaved or bald head, it’s very GQ. And I’m a very GQ kind of guy. I think it’s working. It’s working for [Jim] Montgomery [Dallas Stars head coach], it’s working for Mike Yeo [St. Louis Blues Head Coach], and it’s working for me.
The Don had great flow, whereas Motzko thinks less is more.
QUESTION #9: Many people in the State of Hockey are brushing up on their Bob Motzko knowledge. When you do a Google search, the photo that always rises to the top is you in a hot pink suit? What is the story of the hot pink suit?
Coach Motzko: It was for a “Real Men Wear Pink” fundraising effort. The President of Saint Cloud State was involved with the charity, and we embraced the effort as a team for a few months. We wore pink practice jerseys and auctioned them off for charity. I think my wife found that hot pink suit online, and said “You have to wear it.” When you see that picture, I guess you see a little of my competitive side, because once I got involved, I wanted to be the leading money raiser not only in Central Minnesota, but everywhere.
Pretty in Pink.
QUESTION #10: You guys open with a series against the #1 ranked and defending National Champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. No rest for the weary! What should fans expect out of that initial weekend?
Coach Motzko: Well, we know a lot about Duluth, as they’re bringing back most of their team from last year. Unlike the Big Ten teams that I’m still learning about. The biggest thing is we’re behind right now. But a phrase I stole from Doug Woog was he used to always say, “Your elevator is always moving. It’s either going up or it’s going down.” Our biggest thing is we’re building, we want to be moving up and trying to elevate. It’s a two-game series. People always say they want a test at the start of the year, and with this series against Duluth we’ll have a real sense where we’re at. Do I wish we had another week of practice like the rest of the country? Sure. But on the bright side, we will have about three weeks to get ready for North Dakota. It is what it is. These guys know how to play hockey; let’s drop the puck and see what happens.
Minnesota starts with an early season gauntlet with a series against #1 Duluth, and a trip to Vegas to play UND.