Normally the two-week stretch that covers the Minnesota Boys High School Hockey Tournament and WCHA Final Five is my favorite time of the year to watch hockey. If anything, it's my own little March Madness. And like its basketball counterpart the culmination of many hockey seasons lead to the single-elimination upsets and seasons crushed. As a Minnesota sports fan it has unfortunately been a way of life, but heading to the Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center tonight without the University of Minnesota is something new. However thanks to Gophers AD Joel Maturi, a mediocre Gophers hockey team seems to be becoming the norm.
After watching his team swept at home by Alaska-Anchorage, Gophers coach Don Lucia stated that the days of dominant programs were not over. Despite the fact that Minnesota had just been eliminated from any chance of making the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year and schools like Bemidji State and RIT have made the Frozen Four in the last two year, it does ring true.
College hockey has achieved more parity in terms of upsetting the status quo; however the same schools are at the top of the rankings year after year. The BCs, BUs, Michigans, Denvers and North Dakotas have held their own over the last five years (four of the top six in the PairWise rankings are made up of those schools) but the list is missing the University of Minnesota. Sure every big-name team has a down year - last year's finalist Wisconsin is also sitting at home this weekend and DU missed a couple tournaments after winning the Frozen Four - but none of them have had three or four in a row.
Regardless of the last four years, the University of Minnesota is a big name in college hockey. In the Midwest, it is the name. Like the Yankees, Lakers or Duke basketball, teams search out when they play Minnesota and bring their A game. Kids grow up wanting to wear the "M." For many opposing fans, how their team played takes a backseat to whether or not the Gophers won or lost. The "U" is the only major Division I school in the Upper Midwest for everything besides hockey and have a successful past with five NCAA titles, nineteen Frozen Four appearances and a full WCHA trophy case. Because of that, the four other Minnesota schools and North Dakota like to take down "Big Brother" in the one sport there is a level playing field.
So with that type of pedigree, fans should and do have high expectations for the Minnesota hockey team; namely failure is not an option. Because of that, news that Gophers AD Joel Maturi is giving coach Don Lucia a contract extension rubs the fanbase the wrong way. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Lucia and will always be grateful for the two national titles earlier in the decade, but missing a tournament three years in a row when more than one-quarter of all teams make it is unacceptable. Throw in the fact that the Frozen Four is in St. Paul this year and this past weekend stings even more. Being rewarded for it with a contract extension just boggles the mind.
It's not like any of this information is new to Maturi. Minnesota hasn't had a coach miss the postseason three years in a row for forty years and in those days the tournament featured four teams. The previous coach was shown the door after missing a twelve-team tournament two consecutive years (and those were Doug Woog's first two missed tourneys in fourteen years of coaching at Minnesota).
These are the high standards the University of Minnesota hockey program has and by waiting a year to make a decision whether to stick with coach Lucia or not he's essentially telling the fanbase that mediocrity is okay. Even if the new contract has a lower buyout, why didn't Maturi do it last year? I can understand giving a coach who has won two national titles a longer leash, especially since Minnesota will always have its fair share of top recruits, but at a certain point inaction is worse than any action taken.
In the end, the only way to restore the reputation of the Gophers hockey program is to come out hungry, prove the doubters wrong and win. I hope Coach Lucia and those returning players can bounce back and get back the swagger the "U" used to have and override Joel Maturi's decision. Because what I watched last weekend - and given the attendance on Saturday night, which was maybe 2/3 of the 9234 announced, I might have been alone - was not what I expect of Minnesota hockey The "M" in Minnesota should not stand for mediocrity no matter what the Athletic Department may think.