Reusse: U’s gold medalists return to a coach who knows the grind

The Gophers men's hockey schedule had an odd look to it with Colorado College coming to Minneapolis for a two-game series on Sunday and Monday in early January.

Bob Motzko, the coach of the Gophers, was asked: "The holidays are over, so what gives?"

Motzko said: "Colorado College owed us a series, and we both had openings in our schedules this week."

OK, but why Sunday-Monday, not Friday-Saturday?

"I wanted to have the possibility of getting our guys back in the lineup," Motzko said. "All series are so important, with the NCAA ratings for the tournament, so we scheduled it for 5 p.m. Sunday and then Monday night."

The "guys" would be the four Gophers who were members of the U.S. team that won the world junior tournament on Friday — putting a 6-2 beating on host Sweden in Gothenburg.

The Gophers announced their schedule at the end of August and the national junior team with 29 candidates wasn't announced until early December, but Motzko knew that as always there would be Gophers on the final roster.

To be eligible, a player could not have reached 20 years age as of Dec. 31, and the four Gophers among the 25 gold medalists were forwards Jimmy Snuggerud and Oliver Moore, and defensemen Ryan Chesley and Sam Rinzel.

"[Logan] Cooley could have been on this team, too, if he still was in college," Motzko said.

Cooley does not turn 20 until May. He was a freshman star on the Gophers team of 2022-23, originally said he was going to remain in school for another year, and then signed with the Arizona Coyotes as a third overall draft choice from 2022.

There now are five players from the Gophers national runners-up in the NHL: forwards Cooley and Matthew Knies (Toronto), and defensemen Brock Faber (Wild), Ryan Johnson (Buffalo) and Jackson LaCombe (Anaheim).

"It's going to be hard to ever duplicate a crew like that, but we have plenty left," Motzko said. "We were banged up before the break. We're healthier now and the gold winners will be back Sunday.

"They are getting on a plane in Sweden on Saturday night and should be here Sunday morning. It's up to them on whether to play. Generally, when players get back from the juniors, they are flying around the ice that first weekend.

"Then, all that high-energy hockey they played, best-on-best from all over the hockey world … they can feel it a little in the legs the second week.''

Motzko knows of what he speaks. He was at St. Cloud State and an assistant to Gophers coach Don Lucia for the U.S. junior team in 2014 in Malmö, Sweden, a team that lost in the quarterfinals to Russia.

Motzko was the USA's head coach in 2017. The Yanks beat Canada 5-4 in Montreal in the final. Motzko was the coach again in 2018, when the U.S. beat Canada again, in a pool play game played outdoors in the Bills' stadium in Buffalo, N.Y.

"There were about 100,000 Canadians in there, and our friends and family," Motzko said. "What a game that was."

Motzko did what he could for the committee trying to bring the 2026 world junior hockey tournament to the Twin Cities. The campaign became successful last week, when it was announced the world juniors will be here from Dec. 26, 2025 to Jan. 5, 2026.

"It's going to be at the X in St. Paul and at our arena, but what's also great is the exhibition games the teams play against each other before the tournament starts," Motzko said. "They're going to play them around the state — Bemidji, St. Cloud, Mankato.

"There really are very few great players in the NHL today that we didn't see in the world juniors."

Motzko paused and said: "If you love fast hockey; really, it's all offense, because the skill is so exceptional."

The world juniors were held in Minnesota way back in 1982, when a Kirill Kaprizov could have been a superstar, and then disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

Now, the non-North American talent is vital to the NHL … and producing U.S. players is not the bailiwick of Minnesota and New England, with a few stragglers.

Yes, there are seven players from Boston College among Friday's gold medalists, but one is from Scottsdale, Ariz. and another from Melbourne, Fla.

Three players on the team total were from Florida, even though alligators, water moccasins and no ice cut way down on pond hockey.