A season to remember: Former Gophers Potulny, Lucia reflect on 2002 national title
EDITOR’S NOTE: Journal Sports Writer Ryan Stieg takes a look at the University of Minnesota’s NCAA Championship season in 2002, as told by two principals in the title victory, Northern Michigan University hockey coach Grant Potulny and CCHA Commissioner Don Lucia. Part two will appear in the Saturday-Sunday edition of the Journal.
The new head coach of the Golden Gophers men’s hockey team was taking over a program in 1999 that hadn’t won on a national championship in 20 seasons and he knew that to end that drought, he had to change the way things were done.
Before he arrived, the Gophers didn’t recruit outside of the state, so it truly was a Minnesota program. However, Lucia, who is now the CCHA Commissioner, decided to end that policy and recruited a kid just across the border in North Dakota that would end up being a hero to the Gopher faithful, current Northern Michigan University head coach Grant Potulny.
“I got asked a question when I interviewed about recruiting non-Minnesotans because Doug (previous head coach Doug Woog) had not done that and my response was absolutely,” Lucia said in a recent interview. “I wanted to be able to recruit non-Minnesotans if we felt that player could help us win. And as we were recruiting and looking for that first non-Minnesotan, we were talking to different kids, but then as it unfolded, it almost became that Grant was the perfect prototype because he was older, which was good. He was a captain, he had tremendous leadership skills. And it wasn’t like he was Mr. Superstar, but he was a piece to the puzzle and we felt that at Minnesota, we needed that because we tended to be very young in our recruitment, mainly kids that were seniors in high school, a lot of high school kids. So Grant was the veteran multi-year, two-year USHL player coming in as a 20-year-old and we felt that maturity and leadership would be a real asset to our team and program. And it turned out to be true. He actually was the perfect person.”
It may seem odd for a Grand Forks kid, home of the University of North Dakota, to decide to attend the school’s archrival, but Potulny said Minnesota was the perfect fit.
“I tell players and parents when they’re on their recruiting trip to us (at NMU), I said “You’ll know in your gut when it’s right,” he said. “My first visit was Lake (Superior) State and then I went to Michigan State and then I went to Wisconsin and then I went to (Minnesota) Duluth. Over kind of those three schools, (coach) Jeff Sauer was at Wisconsin and he told me he’s not gonna be there my fourth year. (Coach) Ron Mason was at Michigan State and he told me that and (Mike) Sertich was at Duluth and he was kind of at the end of it too. So as you’re looking at it, I liked those schools, I didn’t fall in love with any of them, but I really liked them and they were really good options. I kind of was still just searching and I knew I had one visit left and I was kind of like, waiting until after this USA team. I made this USA team and I was actually coached by (Minnesota State head coach) Mike Hastings. So he coached this team and we went up to Alberta and it was the first time the U.S. had won the tournament. And so we go up and win the tournament and the Gophers happened to be there. So when I got back, they started recruiting me, and it went really quick and probably in the span of about two weeks, I visited and it was just, I knew from the moment I walked on campus, that’s where I wanted to be.”
After two solid seasons under his belt with the Gophers, Lucia felt that his team for the 2001-02 season had a lot of potential. Eventual Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold decided to delay his NHL career and stay for his senior season, so Minnesota wasn’t losing anybody from the previous year’s team. The Gophers didn’t lose their first game until the end of November, which Lucia credited to the play of his veterans, senior goalie Adam Hauser and a defensive corps that was probably as good as he’d ever had. There were some slight bumps after that, but the Gophers were on a roll by the time the WCHA Championship came around. Even though it lost to Denver in that game, Minnesota was riding a lot of momentum into the NCAA Tournament. Potulny credited the closeness they had as a team for why they had that kind of success.
The 2002 tournament was the last one that featured first round byes, which Minnesota earned, and it only included 12 teams. The Gophers dodged playing Denver, who both Potulny and Lucia admitted had their number. Instead, Minnesota defeated Lucia’s old school, Colorado College, in their first tourney game and then moved on to the Frozen Four in St. Paul. Seeing how the game was played basically in the Gophers’ backyard, the atmosphere was pretty impressive.
“It was crazy,” Potulny said. “We walked to the rink because we were staying at I think, the Radisson, it was right down there. It was the host hotel and even walking to the rink, as a team we’d walk over and people are blaring their horns and hanging jerseys out windows. It was like Spring Break on steroids in St. Paul. It was crazy.”
The game against Michigan was a tight one with the Gophers almost coughing up a big lead, but they managed to outlast the Wolverines, which was a gratifying moment for Lucia as Michigan defeated Colorado College in overtime for the 1996 national championship when he coached the Tigers. After dispatching the Wolverines, Minnesota now had its big opportunity to end the long drought. However, they’d have to get past a talented Maine team that won a national title just three years earlier.
The game went back and forth with the Black Bears holding a 3-2 lead with five minutes or so left to play in regulation. Potulny said one of the Maine goal scorers had “shushed” the crowd at one point and that the Black Bears had taped rings on their fingers on the bench when they were winning, but the Gophers turned the tables on Maine in the final minute and that was due to a decision by Lucia, who just decided to go with a “hot hand” as he put it.
“In the national championship game, this is my sophomore year and my freshman year, I led the country in power play goals,” Potulny said. “My sophomore year, I had a bunch of power play goals and I was really hot at the end of the year. I scored two goals the night before against Michigan and I’d scored in the regional final against CC and I think I scored in the WCHA final. So I had a little streak going and in the national championship game, we pull our goalie, so it’s 6-on-5. So usually that’s a power play plus one and that’s how it’d been the whole year. But for this scenario, he (Lucia) had me stay on the bench and he put Matt Koalska out kind of in my spot and Matt scores like right away. So we go to overtime and Matt’s playing great and Matt actually draws the penalty in overtime after scoring the game-tying goal to get us to overtime. I ‘m thinking Matt’s gonna go again and the other four guys jump the boards and I kind of was just sitting there and Don’s like ‘Go, get out there!’ I thought just logically in my mind, Matt would’ve given us the best chance to win. And then I go out and score. So that’s what I mean by him having just an incredible feel for the game. Very few people, I think, would do those things at that important of a time.”
Heading into overtime, Lucia made another coaching decision and that had to do with the team’s equipment during the long period break.
“Don was always really big on the equipment guys bringing in an extra set of laundry, so you could change your shirt if you went to overtime,” Potulny said. “And nobody had the sweat wicking shirts that they have now. We had these thick cloths, almost looked like a half turtleneck, but that’s what everybody wore, and they were just so wet and so heavy. And I remember before overtime, Don made everybody change their shirt. Why I remember that, I have no idea, but it almost refreshed you. You didn’t feel the burden of emotion. It was just like ‘OK, we’ll just restart.’ Maybe that was his point. Change your shirt and just restart again and go again. I don’t know, but it felt like being at home was such an advantage for us that we were gonna win that game.”
And win they did with Potulny scoring the game-winner on the power play in overtime, a moment that’s still vivid in both men’s eyes.
“When you get into overtime, there’s no TV timeouts and we felt confident playing all four lines,” Lucia said. “And we were able to get the power play opportunity and the guys made good on the power play. We had our number one unit with Grant out there with Jordan (Leopold) and Johnny (Pohl) and Jeff (Taffe) and Paul (Martin). They had a crack at it and didn’t do much. Then the second group went out and we had a short power play, I think it was like 20 seconds and we got another whistle and we threw the number ones back out. Especially because I think the faceoff was on Johnny’s strong side as a right hander. He was able to win the draw and we made the plays and Grant scored obviously one of the biggest goals in the history of Gopher hockey.”
“So Leo shot, the puck’s going wide and it kind of hits Johnny and it just bounces out front,” Potulny said. “So you’re like ‘Oh, the puck’s there.’ So you just whack at it and I didn’t even know if it was me that scored because there was so much going on there. The puck felt so light. I didn’t really know, I think I did, but maybe Johnny did, but who cares? We just won. It was really a harmless play.
“My only thought was ‘I’ve gotta get out from under this pile,’ because I’ve got no helmet and no gloves on because I had just got dogpiled and I had to get out of there. You’re not even sure what to do. I went over to try to find my family real quick and just like make eye contact with my dad. That moment was, so many things hit me that it was like all the things that you kind of went through to get to that point and this is kind of the culmination of it.”
Potulny’s goal also gave Lucia a chance to stick it to his doubters who questioned his idea to recruit outside of the state and he laughs about it now.
“Not everybody was in favor of us recruiting non-Minnesotans and I remember getting a note from an alumni that heading into the NCAA Tournament that we were one player away from winning a national title and that’s kind of insinuating that we had a non-Minnesotan on it, so we shouldn’t,” he said. “So we were always going to have that and lo and behold, we ended up winning it all and Grant was the (NCAA Tournament) MVP.
“The person who actually did send me that email, sent me another one, kind of ‘Well, maybe I was wrong’ after we won it. So I think I was able to put that to rest that yeah, we’re always gonna have mainly a Minnesotan team, but there’s nothing wrong with having a few players from outside the state and as I said, Grant was the perfect one because of his maturity and his leadership. His nickname was Pops because of his age. He came in as a freshman and he was older than even kids in their junior year in college. I think it just showed Grant’s leadership ability when you’re voted one of the captains as a sophomore.”
For Potulny, what he remembers is the “euphoria” after winning as the Twin Cities was so starved for a championship of some sort, they embraced the Gophers like they would a pro franchise.
“It was two weeks of everywhere you went because the Wild were so fresh then,” he said. “I think maybe it was their second year or something and they weren’t very good. It was almost like you won an NHL championship or a pro sports championship the way you were welcomed and celebrated. It was a different time and there were no cell phones then. None of us had cell phones, so after the game, we went to a place that was at capacity and they let us in obviously because they knew who we were and we walk in there and people were chanting ‘Hobey Baker!’ because Leo had won the Hobey and now our girlfriends are trying to get in and they were like ‘Our boyfriends are on the team’ and the guy is like ‘Yeah, right.’ But they couldn’t get hold of us, so they couldn’t even get in. They ended up finding a way in, but it was just such a different time and there was just so many fun things that happened.”
It may have been a different era with different forms of communication, but for Potulny, Lucia and the Gopher faithful, the 2002 championship will always be something to talk about.
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.