Winter Classic profile: Golden Gophers big part of hockey in Minnesota

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The 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1 will not just be an outdoor game between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, it will also be a celebration of the “State of Hockey.” Part of that celebration will include various hockey teams and clubs throughout Minnesota skating on one of several auxiliary rinks at Target Field. NHL.com is profiling each of the teams. Today, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Nick Bjugstad always dreamed of playing for the University of Minnesota. Like many kids in the “State of Hockey,” he wasn’t alone.

His bedroom in Blaine, Minnesota, was a shrine to the Golden Gophers when he was growing up. And why not? Minnesota has won five NCAA Division I hockey championships (1974, 1976, 1979, 2002, 2003) and is one of the most successful collegiate hockey programs in the United States. 

“The Gophers were like an NHL team to me,” said the 29-year-old Minnesota Wild center, who scored 98 points (54 goals, 44 assists) in 109 games with the University of Minnesota from 2010-13. “They were the guys I watched. I didn’t watch a lot of NHL at the time. It was all Gophers. Everything in my room was Gophers. I even had the newspaper clipping from the 2002 championship right above my bed.

“The Gophers are a huge part of the hockey culture of Minnesota and have been for a long time.”

On Jan. 1, Bjugstad will help celebrate Minnesota’s rich hockey history when he and the Wild host the St. Louis Blues in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE).

The Gophers also will be present on one of several auxiliary rinks on the field.

“I think it’s awesome the Gophers will be represented,” he said. “They’re a big part of the Minnesota tradition and culture.”

Justin Holl and Kyle Okposo couldn’t agree more. They are among the 19 University of Minnesota alumni the school listed as being on NHL rosters on opening night of the 2021-22 season.

Holl, a defenseman with the Toronto Maple Leafs, scored 38 points (eight goals, 30 assists) in 142 games for the University of Minnesota from 2010-14. Like Bjugstad, the ultimate goal for the native of Edina, Minnesota, was to one day put on a Golden Gophers jersey.

“It’s funny because, growing up, I didn’t think of playing in the NHL. My realistic dream was playing for the University of Minnesota,” the 29-year-old said. “Those guys were our idols. I was about 11 when they won their national titles in 2002 and 2003, so they were our heroes.

“In my opinion, you can’t have the ‘State of Hockey’ without the Gophers.”

Okposo, a forward with the Buffalo Sabres, scored 51 points (26 goals, 25 assists) in 58 games with the University of Minnesota from 2006-08.

“I was 5 years old when the [Minnesota] North Stars left,” the 33-year-old said, “so every Friday and Saturday night I was in my basement with my stick and my ball, either hitting the fireplace mesh or putting holes in the mantel, emulating what the Gophers were doing.

“They played a huge role in my development as a hockey player. Those were the guys I looked up to, the guys I wanted to be.”

Okposo said the University of Minnesota still has a huge following in the state even after the Wild entered the NHL in 2000.

“I grew up in St. Paul, about five minutes from where the Xcel Energy Center, the Wild’s home rink, is now,” Okposo said. “I played my first game as a Gopher there, which was surreal, being so close to home. Even now, even with all the Wild gear, you still see tons of Gophers hats and shirts, and it’s still a prominent thing for sure.”

Video: Minnesota Golden Gophers invited to Winter Classic

The University of Minnesota hockey program began in 1921-22, and few respect the heritage of it more than Don Lucia, who coached the Golden Gophers to a 457-248-73 record and a pair of national championships from 1999-2018. The 63-year-old recalled the reign of Herb Brooks, who coached the team to a 167-97-18 record from 1972-79 before helping the United States win the gold medal in the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

“Back then, there was an emphasis on getting Minnesota kids into the Gophers program,” said Lucia, a native of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “It left a lasting mark on the kids from the state for sure. There still is an emphasis now, but not to that extent.

“It’s going to be fun watching the Winter Classic and watching a couple of my Gopher players playing for the Wild, Nick and (defenseman) Alex Goligoski. Alex’s family lived a block from us in Grand Rapids. The Gophers have been such a big part of Minnesota hockey and it’s going to be great to see them represented on such a big stage.”

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