MINNEAPOLIS — In a perfect world, Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko would’ve taken the coach of the year honor into the Big Ten championship game at either Michigan or Ohio State in the middle of March. In the real world, where the coronavirus pandemic has turned everything upside down, Motzko’s award, and the Gophers’ next game, have had to wait.
The Big Ten awards, originally scheduled to be announced on March 17, were held until Monday, May 11, when it was finally revealed that Motzko — following his second season behind the Gophers’ bench — was voted the seven-team conference’s top coach.
"Anytime you get an award where your peers vote, it's pretty cool, because we have such tough conference and things are so competitive. I think (Michigan coach) Mel Pearson and (Penn State coach) Guy Gadowsky also did superb jobs this year, so it's a little bit humbling when you see what other guys did," Motzko said on Monday. "I also really like our staff and this is an acknowledgement that we've got really good people doing a terrific job for our program."
After going 18-16-4 in his first season at the U of M, Motzko’s Gophers were 16-14-7 last season, and went into their final Big Ten regular season game with a chance to win a share of the conference title. They ended up finishing tied for second in the conference and beat Notre Dame in a three-game playoff series at home. The Gophers were planning to travel to Penn State for a conference semifinal playoff game when the college hockey season was cancelled on March 12 due to the pandemic.
After a 5-9-4 start to the 2019-20 season, the Gophers went on a second-half tear, going 9-2-1 in their next dozen games and working their way into the NCAA playoff conversation. Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle, who hired Motzko away from St. Cloud State in March 2018 to replace the retiring Don Lucia, compared the hockey coach to former University of Washington football coach Chris Petersen, who preached a “low ego, high output” mantra when he and Coyle worked together at Boise State.
“Bob Motzko is the ultimate definition of ‘low ego, high output.’ He’s come into our program, he’s recruited relentlessly, he’s embraced Minnesota and clearly understands our expectations to compete at a high, high level,” Coyle said Friday in a conference call with reporters. “And I think if you look at what our team was doing in the second half of the season, we were playing very well and were maybe one of the better teams in college hockey.
"Unfortunately with the pandemic, everything got stopped ... but I cannot say enough good things about Bob Motzko, the staff he’s put together, the type of kids he’s brought in.”
This is the fifth time in 15 seasons as a head coach that Motzko, 59, has been given his conference's top honor. In 13 seasons at St. Cloud State, Motzko was named coach of the year in the WCHA twice (2006 and 2007) and in the NCHC twice (2014 and 2018).
Three rookies, co-captain recognized
On a team with a dozen new faces in the locker room, it’s not surprising that three of the Gophers’ rookies were honored by the Big Ten as well. Wisconsin freshman forward Cole Caufield was named the league’s rookie of the year after leading all of the Big Ten in scoring, but Gophers forward Ben Meyers, defenseman Jackson LaCombe and goalie Jared Moe all earned spots on the all-rookie team, with Moe selected unanimously.
Meyers finished third on the team in scoring with 26 points, while LaCombe was the team’s top-scoring defenseman. Moe started a dozen games, primarily in a backup role to junior Jack LaFontaine, and went 7-5-1.
"There were a couple more (rookies) that played very well for us too," Motzko said. "It's going to be a very special class, so great accolades for those guys. It kind of sums up our team. Everybody talks about how we were young, but we were extremely young, and not ready for the fight at the start. By the second half, we got ourselves back in the fight, and that was a testament to our young guys improving and the kids sticking together."
Gophers co-captain Tyler Nanne, a senior defenseman, was also honored as his team’s recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award. Each team nominates one player for this honor, given for leadership on and off the ice. Nanne was the second member of his family, after his grandfather Lou in the 1960s, to serve as a Gophers captain, and the initial third-generation player in the history of the program, after his father Marty skated for the Gophers in the 1980s.
Forwards Sammy Walker and Brannon McManus were named to the Big Ten's honorable mention list.
The Gophers will announce their team awards at a date that has not yet been determined.