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Cooley aims for NCAA hockey title with Gophers, but Coyotes’ uncertainty factored in decision

Logan Cooley will be skating at 3M Arena at Mariucci during the 2023-24 season rather than his other option of Mullet Arena, the temporary home of the Arizona Coyotes. And for that, Gophers fans can at least partially thank the voters in Tempe, Ariz.

While Cooley, an All-America center as a freshman for the Gophers men's hockey team this season, listed the goal of winning a national championship as his primary reason for returning to Minnesota, he acknowledged that the uncertainty with the Coyotes also played into his decision.

On Tuesday, voters in Tempe rejected three propositions for a project that included a new arena for the Coyotes, further placing the team that selected Cooley with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft on unsteady footing. The Coyotes will play in the 5,000-seat Mullet Arena on the Arizona State campus for the second consecutive season in 2023-24, but relocation could be an option after that.

"For sure,'' Cooley responded during a video news conference when asked if the Tempe vote played a role in his decision. "I was kind of leaning toward going [pro], but at the same point, they're both great options. Either way, if [the vote] went through or it didn't, in the back of my head I still feel like I have a lot left to do in college hockey. And to be honest, I really haven't won that much, either.''

One of three Hobey Baker Award finalists this season, Cooley helped the Gophers win 29 games and the Big Ten regular-season championship and reach a second consecutive NCAA Frozen Four.

It's the final game, however, that fuels his fire. The Gophers were 2 minutes, 47 seconds away from winning their sixth NCAA championship before Quinnipiac swiped the ring off their finger by tying the score late in the third period and scoring 10 seconds into overtime for a 3-2 win in Tampa, Fla.

"Team-wise, everyone's goal is to win the national championship,'' Cooley said from his hometown of Pittsburgh after calling the decision the hardest he's had to make in his hockey career. "We've been to two Frozen Fours over the past two years and haven't accomplished what we want. I want to be part of bringing a national championship back to that great state of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota.''

Cooley nearly accomplished that this season, ranking second nationally in scoring with 60 points on 22 goals and 38 assists. He carried a 16-game point streak and seven-game multipoint streak into the NCAA final but was held off the scoresheet. Another year in college, he said, will help him improve.

"I want to continue to get stronger on the ice and hopefully one day play in the NHL,'' the 5-10, 180-pounder said. "I still feel like I have some room to grow.''

Cooley and linemates Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud combined for 64 goals and 88 assists in the 2022-23 season. Snuggerud joins Cooley in returning for a sophomore season, while Knies signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs after his sophomore campaign and had a goal and three assists in seven playoff games. Cooley consulted Knies while mulling over his options.

"He said guys are just way bigger, way stronger, way faster,'' Cooley said. "He played two years [with the Gophers], and you see what he did in the playoffs and how it helped him. That's another reason why I thought going back would be a good idea.''

By remaining with the Gophers, Cooley delayed signing a three-year, entry-level NHL contract worth a maximum of $950,000 annually. He'll continue to explore name, imagine and likeness opportunities with the Dinkytown Athletes collective.

"You hear about the football guys and what they're getting,'' he said. "Hockey's only going to continue to grow with that part, and I'm happy to be a part of it.''

Unfinished business on the ice, though, was front and center for Cooley during the news conference. The loss to Quinnipiac still stings — "After losing that game, I didn't want to think about hockey,'' he said — but the opportunity to compete for the 2024 crown, which will be awarded in St. Paul, provides motivation.

"That's how we'd write it up if we could,'' he said. "To bring it to St. Paul and have us win it there would be, honestly, like a movie.''