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 seasons.
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 cool."
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.