After a first-round exit from the 2013 NCAA tournament, five of Minnesota’s key players left the team after three years of eligibility and signed professional contracts.
Minnesota was the NCAA runner-up last season, and this offseason, Mike Reilly, Kyle Rau, Brady Skjei, Adam Wilcox and Hudson Fasching all faced similar decisions.
But the Gophers players decided to put their NHL aspirations on hold for a chance at a national title.
“They do the smart thing — they get the information and they do what they feel is best for them at this stage of their life,” head coach Don Lucia said.
When Rau, an All-American and the program’s active leader in scoring, announced July 10 he would return for his senior season, the last of potential early departures had reaffirmed their commitment to Minnesota.
“[Rau] had a very difficult time making a decision, but there’s no doubt when he made it that he was going to be in with both feet,” Lucia said.
Reilly and Rau exude confidence in the team’s chances at winning a national title and say they have “unfinished business” when talking about their return.
Minnesota lost to Union College 7-4 in last season’s NCAA title game.
“We were so close last year, and we just had that taste,” Fasching said. “It’s hard to leave after getting that close and not getting what you want to achieve in the national championship.”
Many people viewed Reilly as the most likely on the team to leave for the NHL.
Reilly, a rising junior, was a fourth-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But instead of leaving, Reilly announced in May his decision to stay in college.
“I think a lot of guys had a lot of big decisions to make … life decisions, in a way,” Reilly said.
But before arriving at his final answer, Reilly considered variables off the ice.
“A lot of [Gophers] are finishing up their degrees, including myself. It’s [a decision] that’s big for your family as well. [My older brothers and teammates Ryan and Connor Reilly] help for sure, but they wanted me to do what’s best for me,” Reilly said. “It’s going to be great to play with them next year. I mean, all three of us out on that ice? It’s going to be awesome.”
Reilly said he heard many stories about other players leaving college but wishing they could return after realizing how much they had enjoyed the experience.
Fellow defenseman Skjei was a first-round selection by the New York Rangers in the 2012 NHL Draft and enjoyed a break-out sophomore campaign.
“[Those of us with decisions to make] were definitely talking a little bit to each other, but you have to respect what’s best for another guy’s future,” Skjei said. “However, I think we all wanted to stay and make another run at it next year.”
But Skjei said the decision would’ve been further complicated if Minnesota had defeated Union for the title.
“I think it would’ve been a much harder decision for sure,” Skjei said. “If we would have won that game, some guys might have taken off and left, and it might have been a little harder decision for me for sure.”
Fasching agreed that reversing the final game’s score could have brought a different outcome.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone [had we won] … but it would have affected guys like Reilly and Rau a lot. I think that was huge in their decision.”
But everything happens for a reason, Skjei said, and Minnesota began its training for the upcoming season just two and a half weeks after the championship loss.
The team’s focus has been strength and conditioning in the weight room, and the team is working out five times a week.
Skjei and Fasching said the only satisfying ending to their 2014-15 season will be a national championship.
“We have a lot of guys coming back, and I’m looking forward to the season to challenge myself and other guys,” Reilly said. “I think we’re going to make a run.”