Thursday, September 28, 2006

“In the college coaching profession, you always hope to have the chance to come back and coach at your alma mater,” Bob Motzko said a year ago when he was picked to lead the men’s hockey program at SCSU. “Now I’m one of the fortunate ones to get that opportunity.”

Bob MotzkoMotzko was being more than gracious when he made that statement – he was feeling very, very lucky. He had been a Husky during his undergraduate years at SCSU, was an assistant coach the year he graduated, and has always had a deep-seated connection to the program.

Husky hockey fans may feel very, very lucky, too. During his first season as head coach Motzko led the team to a 22-16-4 overall record, posted a 13-13-2 record in the rugged WCHA, and took the team to the championship game of the WCHA Final Five Tournament.

Motzko himself was named Inside College Hockey Coach of the Year by ESPN-affiliated InsideCollegeHockey.com; he was a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award, presented by the American Hockey Coaches Association to the nation's top NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey coach; and is 2006 WCHA Coach of the Year.

Hockey got hold of Motzko when he was a fourth-grader. He remembers exactly when it began: His family had just moved to Austin and was unpacking the moving van when a neighbor walked over and introduced himself. “How many boys do you have,” he asked Motzko’s father, who responded that there were three. “I just signed them up for hockey,” declared the neighbor, who turned out to be a hockey coach. Until then baseball had been Motzko’s passion, but within months of strapping on his first skates, he said, he became “fanatical” about hockey.

After high school the hockey fanatic played for two years in the U.S. Hockey Junior League before he headed to the University of Minnesota (U of M), where he intended to play more hockey. The first year he walked on, but was cut. The next year, “My coach talked me into coming back – and he cut me again!”

“I always felt they were making a big mistake,” the Husky coach said of the Gophers, laughing. That mistake sent Motzko and three other players to SCSU. “And the minute I got here I knew it was a fit.”

Ironically, later in Motzko’s hockey career the Gophers took him back, that time as an assistant coach, and kept him for four years. “But my heart was always back here,” he said of SCSU, so when the chance arose he hurried “home” to St. Cloud.

The hockey coach says it’s exciting to be recruiting and coaching “in the best league in the country with the best tournament in college hockey.” When young Huskies can play in front of an all-time league attendance record of 19,353 people, as they did in the Final Five marquee game, well, recruiting is a little easier.

Recruiting is a part of the job for which Motzko is well-prepared. His four recruiting classes at the U of M were considered among the best in the nation, as they produced a Hobey Baker Award winner, three first team All-Americans, two second team All-Americans and many All-WCHA honorees.

Nevertheless, recruiting in the WCHA “is an arms race.” Motzko notes, for example, that the Huskies are competing for players in a league where eight of the 10 teams have built new arenas or done major renovations since the SCSU National Hockey Center was built in 1989.

But once they’re at SCSU, Motzko finds it’s a kick to coach the young men he’s responsible for. “The hockey part is easy – they want to play hockey.”

Motzko’s players quickly learn, however, that they need more than hockey skills. Academics matter to this coach – he makes it clear he’s interested, applauds them when they do well, and has been known to make surprise classroom visits. “I know they’re going to class,” he declared with confidence and a grin.

“If it’s important to the guy in charge,” Motzko said of his emphasis on academics, “They (the players) know it’s important to them.” The Husky men’s hockey team has made the grade – their coach is intensely proud of the fact that 16 of his 27 Huskies made the conference all-academic team and two are also 2006 WCHA Scholar-Athletes.

The coach is where he wants to be – at home at SCSU – and is expecting a lot of fun and excitement. “During the next couple years I’ll be looking under the hood of our program” to find out how to take it to the next level, Motzko said after his first year as head of the SCSU men’s hockey program. “I don’t have to build this team – I just have to try to build it better.”

- Marjorie Proell

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