MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Golden Gophers men's hockey coach Bob Motzko grew up in Austin, Minn., not far from the Iowa border, so the parts of five seasons he spent coaching the North Iowa Huskies in Mason City, when he was fresh out of college at St. Cloud State, weren’t a total culture shock.
Motzko and Minnesota State Mankato head coach Mike Hastings — who spent 14 seasons as the head coach and general manager of the Omaha Lancers — are both veterans of the United States Hockey League. They are part of a growing pipeline of coaches making their way from the Midwestern junior leagues to the college hockey ranks or higher.
Jason Lammers, who leads Niagara into this weekend’s nonconference games against the Gophers at 3M Arena at Mariucci, is the latest in that pipeline. Now in his third season running the Purple Eagles program, Lammers was a well-traveled assistant coach in the college ranks, working at Clarkson, Alaska, Princeton, Ohio State, Colorado College and UMass-Lowell before getting the head coaching position with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2015.
After two successful seasons in Dubuque, Niagara came calling, and the Eagles have seen steady growth in his first two seasons.
“The USHL is really doing a nice job right now,” Motzko said, naming a trio of current or former NHL coaches who rode buses in Iowa before getting to the NHL. “(Jon) Cooper came out of there and (Jeff) Blashill came out of there and Dave Hakstol came out of there, and Mike Hastings. A lot of guys have weaned themselves and their head coaching experience.
"Jason Lammers was a long-time excellent assistant coach who went into Dubuque and did a fantastic job. Now he’s in Year 3, and he knows what he’s doing over there.”
Cooper coaches the Tampa Bay Lightning after winning a USHL title with the Green Bay Gamblers, while Blashill is in his fifth season as the Detroit Red Wings head coach after leading the Indiana Ice to a USHL title a decade ago. Before he coached North Dakota and the Philadelphia Flyers, Hakstol — now an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs — was behind the bench for the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers.
As for what fans can expect from Niagara, the Eagles have not played a regular season game, so Motzko admitted that he and his coaches are somewhat in the dark, and have been “making phone calls, trying to figure it out.”
Niagara was picked to finish second in the Atlantic Hockey conference, which is home to Air Force and American International — the teams that upset St. Cloud State in the NCAA playoffs the last two seasons. So Motzko said they won’t be taken lightly.
“Niagara by name in our region might not be a big name,” he said. “But Atlantic Hockey has knocked off a lot of big teams over the last handful of years and this is a coach that’s going to get them going.”
PK getting considerable early practice
After two games, the Gophers don’t have the best penalty-killing unit in the Big Ten, although they do have the most experience. Colorado College had nine power plays during last weekend’s two games and scored one man-advantage goal. They got extra penalty killing work in the third period on Saturday, when co-captain Sammy Walker received a five-minute major for contact to the head of a Tigers player. The Gophers held CC to four shots on goal and killed the penalty.
Overall, Motzko was happy with his team’s penalty killers, but like most coaches, he would like to see his team spending less time in the penalty box. But with a young team, the coaches need to learn who can kill penalties effectively early in the season, and they need practice in game conditions.
“It’s the good and the bad. You get better with experience, so if you take a lot of penalties, you’re going to get experience,” Motzko said. “It builds confidence if they get it done, like the five-minute (major). It also gives us the ability to see them in a game. There’s one thing to do it in practice, and it’s in a whole ‘nother light in a game.”
Having lost 11 players from last season’s team, all of the most experienced penalty killers are gone, they are learning who will step up when they need a four-man unit on the ice in critical times.
“We’re starting from complete scratch on the penalty kill unit,” Motzko said. “So by taking the dumb penalties we took, we got good practice on it, and it gave us a good look at what we’ve got to do moving forward.”