In Monday's weekend recap post there were a few comments about expectations for the Minnesota Golden Gophers Hockey team. Matt believes this season is natty title or bust, and I would tend to agree with him. While I won't be calling for Don Lucia's head if the Gophers don't win it all this season, considering what they did last year and not only what they brought back, but how the new guys like Adam Wilcox and Mike Reilly have played, the goal this season should be nothing short of making it to Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four and winning the whole damn thing. Icing on the cake would be beating UND along the way and BC in the final, but now I'm just getting selfish. Jimipig opined about how fortunate Gopher Hockey fans are to get to cheer for not just a Gopher team, but a Minnesota team, that instill confidence and high expectations.
Confidence? Expectations? Are we sure we're talking about a team from Minnesota? This may scare most Minnesotans who are not Gopher Hockey fans simply because it's, well, just so un-Minnesotan. Minnesota teams in general are never the juggernauts, the bully, the team everybody else wants to bring down. The Vikings are the unequivocal kings of the state, and while they've had a few dominant seasons (1998 and 2009 come to mind- and make me want to vomit and drink myself into oblivion- or Mike Tyson's Bolivia), they're not thought of in the same way as the Cowboys, Steelers, Patriots or the arch-rival Packers. Heck, even Bears fans remind us of how we've never won the Super Bowl. The Twins (the past few years not withstanding) have been one of the more successful baseball teams of the past few decades, with 2 World Series titles and multiple division crowns to their credit, yet they're not in the same financial stratosphere as the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, LA teams, and others. The Wild SHOULD be a hockey power in a league driven by parity and a rabid fan base, and with the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and a finally loaded farm system, maybe their time is coming. Then there's the T-Wolves, who haven't sniffed the playoffs since KG left.
If you read this blog then you're a Gopher fan, and you know all too well about Gopher football's failings the past 60 or so years (although we're all hoping Jerry Kill is turning things around), and that Gopher hoops is yet to win an NCAA tournament game or finish higher than 6th in the B1G under Tubby Smith. So to cheer for a team from Minnesota that we don't just hope will have success but expect to have success, that is very different indeed. Which then begs the question: what should the expectations for Gopher Hockey be? I think Matt is right that this year's expectations should be nothing short of a national title, but I'm not sure that's a reasonable goal EVERY season. Or is it? If the Gophers are truly one of the few elite programs in college hockey, that means competing not just for conference championships but national championships. However, it's difficult, if not impossible, to win a title every season- well unless you're Nick Saban, apparently.
To get a better idea of annual expectations I thought I'd compare the Gophers to the other perennially elite programs around the country, and after a little research there seemed to be a distinct cutoff at seven: only seven teams, including the Gophers, have won at least five national titles. Nobody has won only four, just three have won three, four have won twice, and just four schools have won it all once. But for me, they don't belong in the same group as the following seven:
*BU does not list how many NCAA tournament appearances they've made, so the conservative estimate is based on the number of years they've made either a Frozen Four, or won a conference regular season or tourney title.
While there's some great programs that have won 1-3 titles, including Michigan State (3 titles), Colorado College (2), Cornell (2) or Harvard (1), there's also some schools in that group who have been very, shall we say, "Gopher Football-esque" in recent decades, and definitely aren't considered elite programs any longer. I would argue the MSU's, CC's and others make up a solid second tier of strong programs, but the Kings of College Hockey are limited to the seven that have won at least five. Looking at the Gophers compared to the Elite group brings up the following points:
-Michigan has the strongest argument for best hockey program with more Frozen Four and NCAA appearances, and TWO more natty titles than anyone else. They're the clear #1, actually.
-Any of the other six could make an argument for whose #2. Minnesota has been a volume winner, tied for fourth with 5 NCAA titles and 14 regular season conference titles, but they're second in conference tourney titles, and are one of only three schools who have made at least 20 Frozen Fours and 30 NCAA tourneys (BU may be the fourth for that group, but I could not find an accurate total for how many NCAA tourneys they've made anywhere). BC has been the strongest in recent seasons, while their rivals BU have slipped a bit but still have incredibly good career numbers. I was surprised to see DU with 7 titles, and even more surprised Sconnie, despite all their success, have only ever won three regular season conference titles and have played in by far the fewest Frozen Four's of the group. North Dakota? F*** them, but you knew that already.
-I have seen and heard a few folks talking about how weak the new B1G hockey conference will be and how Minnesota should win it every year. After looking at this, I hope they'll reconsider that opinion. While it certainly won't be as deep as the new NCHC will be, it's as top heavy as any league in the country. No other conference can boast three of the top seven programs, and if you look at Michigan State's profile, four of the top eight. No doubt I would prefer the WCHA would have stayed together and Minnesota and Sconnie would never have gotten pulled out, but as alternatives go the Big Ten will be far from a bad or weak hockey conference.
So looking at that list of the top seven, the Gophers and their fans have every right to believe they belong, and should always belong. While I think a natty title every year is a little much because there's going to be ups and downs in recruiting and players leaving early, Minnesota should always be competing for a conference title and a #1 NCAA tournament seed. While that may not happen every season, we should see those kind of results in most of them, and it's why I couldn't believe more Gopher Hockey fans weren't outraged when they missed the NCAA's three straight years and didn't even make the Final Five two years in a row from 2009-2011. That kind of thing just shouldn't happen, just as it wouldn't be expected for the Yankees to miss the playoffs three years in a row, or North Carolina or Kentucky to miss the NCAA tourney 3 straight years.
As Gopher Hockey fans, don't be afraid to set the bar high and expect the best, because this program has proven over many decades that it is one of the best, and there's no reason not to expect that this season, next, and beyond. The program slipped for a few years there, but Don Lucia has the program back playing at an elite level, and this season has arguably the best team in the country. The scary part is, he'll only lose one player to graduation next season, and perhaps only a handful more to the pros or transfer. This is a team and a program to get excited about and, dare I say it, one we should expect to win and win big. Say it with pride, Minnesota sports fans: Minnesota Gopher Hockey is a winner, and we expect them to win. Perhaps not very Minnesotan, but it's true.