5 Days in South Dakota: Inside the U's failed quest for the Frozen Four

SIOUX FALLS – Dinner is planned in about 45 minutes, but the Gophers men's hockey team has a film session slated for the top floor at the Holiday Inn. Players arrive dressed in hockey business casual attire — gray Minnesota pullovers, dressy sweatpants and bright white Nike sneakers.

Waiting for the players in a conference room are coach Bob Motzko and his top assistant, Steve Miller, who is projecting game video onto a roll-down screen. Players assemble in a semicircle around Miller, a coaching veteran who has three NCAA championships on his résumé. Miller and Motzko are breaking down Nebraska Omaha, the Gophers' opponent the next night in the NCAA regional semifinal.

The Gophers are aiming for a third consecutive Frozen Four appearance, and this year it will be played in St. Paul. They're determined to finish what they couldn't in a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in last year's national title game. In addition, they're trying to end an NCAA championship drought that will reach 21 years if they don't succeed.

With video cut-ups of Nebraska Omaha at the ready, Miller quickly goes through game scenarios and how the players should react.

"This is a heavy team, a hard team," Miller points out. "We've got to be able to play into guys, OK."

Motzko interjects, "You get back, so our toes are pointing north, and now we're going to attack with speed."

The half-hour session challenges the players, with Miller and Motzko emphasizing the physical, along-the-boards play at which the Mavericks excel.

"Here comes their F3; he's hunting. He didn't seal, he hunts," Miller said, referring to the third forward entering the zone. "We're going to need you, wingers, because you will have company."

Motzko finishes the meeting with his points of emphasis, then cues the team's playoff hype video montage. As a series of big plays appear, players nudge each other when their highlight comes on. "Go get 'em," Motzko concludes.

This film session is only one scene from a five-day stretch in Sioux Falls for Motzko and his team, who rally to beat Nebraska Omaha 3-2 in the opener. But not all tales have happy endings. Minnesota's quest ends Saturday with a 6-3 loss to Boston University in the regional final, and with it the Minnesota careers of fifth-year seniors Jaxon Nelson, Bryce Brodzinski and Justen Close. Soon there will be tears, but not before one more memorable journey.

Tuesday: A home away from home

As was the case during their trip to last year's Fargo Regional, the Gophers have to travel through a snowstorm to get there. Dodging icy patches from snow whipped up by 40-mph winds, the team arrives around 7 p.m. to the Holiday Inn, which they share with Nebraska Omaha and RIT, while top-seeded Boston University stays at the Sheraton attached to the Premier Center.

For Motzko and Nelson, his captain, the trip is a homecoming of sorts. Nelson grew up on a farm in Magnolia, Minn., roughly 40 miles away, starred for Luverne High School and played for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the U.S. Hockey League. Motzko was the original coach and GM of the Stampede from 1999-2001 before becoming a Gophers assistant coach under Don Lucia.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say that when we knew the region was here, we wanted to be here," Motzko says.

Wednesday: Getting down to business

It's Motzko's 63rd birthday, and he's putting the week into perspective. Sixteen teams, one trophy.

"Here we go. We begin again," he tells reporters at the Gophers' news conference. "This is what all the teams in the country fight for — an opportunity to get in this tournament."

The Gophers keep things loose, too. When asked if he pointed out his family's farm to teammates as the bus drove by, Nelson deadpans: "To a couple of people. Mostly, everybody was on their phone."

Thursday: Gophers vs. Mavericks

Steven Baglio of Hugo and Tommy Ranney of Eden Prairie are sitting at the Crooked Pint Ale House, about a half-mile from the arena. Fans in maroon-and-gold attire are already taking over the place at lunch, seven hours before game time. Baglio and Ranney don't know each other, but quickly the Gophers hockey talk is flowing.

"I grew up in a weird time when the North Stars had moved and we didn't have the Wild yet," Baglio says. "So, Gophers hockey was everything growing up."

Ranney, sporting a shiny Brian Bonin sweater, has been a Gophers fan since he can remember. "They've got to get to three [goals]," he says. "They're gonna need some of the offensive guys to show up. Nelson, hopefully, should keep riding his hot streak."

Indeed, the Gophers get to three, squeaking past Nebraska Omaha, as Nelson scores twice in the third period, both off setups from Brodzinski. That gives Nelson 10 goals in a span of seven games, and the crowd, heavy with Nelson's friends and family from Magnolia and Luverne, roars its approval.

Brodzinski finishes with two assists and Close makes it stand with 34 saves. That's three fifth-year seniors taking over a game.

"Those three have meant the world to us," Motzko says.

In a raucous postgame locker room, teammates credit Nelson.

"He's the only guy on the ice who's 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, so it's not too hard to find him," Brodzinski says.

Afterward, Gophers parents gather in the arena's entryway, waiting to congratulate the team.

Brodzinski's parents, Mike and Kathy, are also celebrating their anniversary. Mike says: "I FaceTimed Bryce and said, 'Hey, you've never gotten me a present. I just want one win on our anniversary.'"

Chad Nelson, Jaxon's dad, savors the moment.

"It was kind of a redemption tour here tonight," he says, "and he showed up and proved a lot of the doubters wrong."

Friday: Preparing for the Terriers

Boston University is next, a longtime nemesis for the Gophers, who defeated the Terriers 6-2 in last year's Frozen Four.

The players reassemble Friday at 8:30 p.m. for more film study. Miller and Motzko point out where they believe the Gophers could find holes in Boston University's offensive-minded game.

"No one's covering this area right here," Miller says. "So, it turns into that chance right there."

Adds Motzko, "It's going to be a little looser than what we've been seeing in the last few weeks." In other words, there should be more opportunities, if they can capitalize.

The coaches put extra attention on Terriers stars Macklin Celebrini, the 17-year-old freshman forward, and Lane Hutson, the All-America sophomore defenseman.

"There's 71. He's shifty, competitive, loves to shoot," Miller says of Celebrini. "We've got to get into him, bump him and make life miserable for him."

Motzko concludes the meeting by reminding the team what it accomplished Thursday.

"You were a damn good team last night with no space and time," he says. "And then we made the right plays at the right time. All right, let's go after this thing again!"

Saturday: One win from St. Paul

At first, Minnesota appears on its way. Nelson scores early, on his 24th birthday no less, and Brodzinski follows for a 2-0 lead. But 14 seconds later, the game starts to turn when Quinn Hutson's shot trickles past Close to cut it to 2-1.

Celebrini, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in this year's NHL draft, sets up two second-period goals before Gophers junior Aaron Huglen ties it. Lane Hutson puts BU back ahead, and Minnesota can't score again.

The Gophers come tantalizingly close late in the third period when Nelson leads a two-on-one rush with Brodzinski, who didn't get off a good shot after Nelson's pass. "It snuck under my stick a bit," Brodzinski says. "That's one that 99 times out of 100, I'm able to get ahold of. It's an unfortunate error at a pretty bad time."

The Terriers tack on two empty-net tallies and start celebrating a trip to St. Paul.

In the Gophers locker room, players exchange hugs. Faces are red. Tears flow. The season is over, and the pain hits hard.

"You re-fall in love with hockey every single day," Brodzinski says of playing with linemates Nelson and Mason Nevers. "They make you want to get up and go to the rink every day."

"It's devastating today, but that's just how it's set up," Nevers says. "We'll get through it together, and we'll always be brothers for life. This isn't the end, it's just the end of the season."

Nelson, wiping his red eyes, tells reporters, "I'm very proud of the things we accomplished as a team this year and all my years here. I'm just going to take this one last ride home and enjoy everyone's presence one last time."

Close, the former third-stringer who was thrust into the starting lineup in January of 2022, helped the Gophers reach two Frozen Fours and win six NCAA tournament games. The Saskatchewan native, in a classy move, has one request for a reporter.

"I just want to thank my coaches, my teammates and the fans for making everything so memorable for the last five years,'' he says. "I just can't emphasize how grateful I am."

Afterward, parents wait for the players in the concourse. They have goodbyes to say, too, thanks to the bonds they've developed traveling to games.

"This has been a wonderful run for us," says Carl Fish's mother, Julia, who is known by the team as "Momma Fish."

Adds Jennifer Kurth, mother of Gophers sophomore Connor Kurth: "You get to know the kids and the parents, and every loss is heartbreaking when they're moving on. I was absolutely sobbing tonight, knowing this is the last time you're going to see some of these families. It's so hard."

Players give their friends and families final hugs before boarding the bus. Ahead is a four-hour ride back to Minneapolis on a cool night when the cold reality of the season's sudden end is sinking in for the Gophers.