It is no secret that Gophers hockey is held to a high standard. Even with back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003, the program has come under fire after three years without an NCAA tournament bid.
New recruit Blake Thompson understands.
“We have such high expectations because we’re Minnesota,” he said. “We have to win.”
Thompson recently committed to join the Gophers after three seasons in the USHL with the Waterloo Blackhawks. The Eden Prairie native and USHLAll-Star in 2008-09 was a late addition to a recruiting class that includes highly touted duo Seth Ambroz and Kyle Rau. Both Ambroz and Rau, Minnesota’s 2011 Mr. Hockey, are projected early round selections in June’s NHL draft. Thompson, who has been draft eligible for two years, has yet to be selected.
“I don’t want to worry about getting drafted or not,” Thompson said. “I want to worry about playing well for the team. If I get into a good position to get looked at by NHL teams, it’s an added bonus. The main concern is having a successful year [as a team].”
Thompson and Rau have played together before at the Eden Prairie youth level. Thompson was excited by the idea of a reunion.
“[Rau] always brought it,” Thompson said. “There wasn’t ever a game where he wasn’t the man to watch. He’s a fun player to watch.”
Rau is the most recent addition to a long list of Mr. Hockeys — the award given to the outstanding senior boy’s high school hockey player in the state — to play for the Gophers. Since 2002, seven out of the last ten have come to Minnesota.
Rau earned the award by leading Eden Prairie to the AA state title last year. The senior forward dominated in the team‘s three state tournament games, tallying seven points (five goals, two assists), and was just as impressive in the regular season with 69 points (33 goals, 36 assists) in 25 games.
Minnesota’s recent struggles stem at least partly from a lack of long-term commitment from elite players like Rau. In terms of eligibility, the 2011-12 Minnesota roster could have had four Mr. Hockey award winners. Instead, only two will don maroon and gold this upcoming season. Nick Bjugstad, Mr. Hockey in 2010 and a first round pick of the Florida Panthers, will return for his sophomore year, but previous winners Aaron Ness (2008) and Nick Leddy (2009) have already jumped to NHL.
The latter, Leddy, spent only one season as a Gopher. Kyle Okposo and Jordan Schroeder are other recent examples of early departures by influential players.
“I think we have to look when we’re recruiting and [make] sure we bring in some older kids, make sure we bring in some elite players and make sure we bring in some four year players,” head coach Don Lucia said shortly after Minnesota’s 2010-11 season was ended abruptly by Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. “I don’t think we’re that far away.”
At 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, Rau is considered small by NHL standards, and as a result could have a prolonged college career. Thompson, who is fighting just to be recognized by pro scouts, said he is planning to stay all four years.
“I think it’s good for the organization to have some guys who aren’t just looking to move on,” Thompson said. “Instead, use the University as a place to improve and win a national championship.”
Thompson, who missed out on winning a state title with Eden Prairie because he departed for the USHL after his sophomore year of high school, was adamant about winning a national crown.
“That’s all that’s on my mind, and I hope that’s all that’s on everyone else’s mind,” he said.