It took just three short years for head coach Don Lucia to lead the University of Minnesota to the pinnacle of college hockey. And as the 2002-03 season nears, the Golden Gophers are ready to reload and defend their national title.
"I'm not worried about our players or coaches being satisfied," Lucia said. "Winning the national title last season in St. Paul will probably be the greatest experience any of us will ever have in the sport of hockey, but even by last May, I could tell our players were already looking ahead to this season."
To make a return trip to the Frozen Four this season, the Golden Gophers will have the unenviable task of replacing the nation's top player in Jordan Leopold, the nation's top scorer in John Pohl, the nation's second-leading goal scorer in Jeff Taffe and a four-year starter in goal in Adam Hauser. While a seemingly impossible task for most programs, the quality and depth of talent accumulated by Lucia in his short stint at Minnesota keeps the expectations very high for the upcoming season.
Michigan Wolverines, Minnesota's toughest competition, saw the suprise departure, over the summer, of Toronto native Mike Cammalleri.
"Michael was generally regarded as the best player in college hockey this past season," said Kings general manager Dave Taylor. "He is a highly skilled, intelligent player who has excelled at all levels of hockey thus far. He will certainly compete for a spot with the Kings this season as we consider him to be an elite prospect."
According to the Los Angeles Times, Cammalleri forced the Kings' hand by threatening to leave Michigan for the major junior Ontario Hockey League. Had he played there one season, the Kings would have lost his rights.
"That increased their leverage, and we increased our offer and got the contract done," said Dave Taylor to the Times. "We've been talking for a while, but it really picked up in the last week."
Cammalleri joined fellow Wolverine, Mike Komisarek, who opted to leave Michigan as an underclassman and sign with the Montreal Canadiens.
Despite a bout with the "kissing-disease" [mononucleosis] Cammalleri scored 23 goals and racked up 44 points in 29 games last season as a Wolverine. Cammalleri also won a silver medal with the Canadian National Junior Team at the 2002 World Junior Championships, leading all players in scoring with seven goals and 11 points and garnering honors as the tournament’s top forward. He was a two-time member of Team Canada.
However, the "Red" one, Wolverine coach and NHL alumnus Red Berenson, with a fiery opinion to match his hair, spoke out.
"Cammalleri made a move he didn't have to make," said Berenson. "You should have a little more trust, loyalty and commitment to what you're doing. You shouldn't drop everything to make a quick buck".
The decision by Cammalleri and Komisarek stands in stark contrast to Hobey Baker Award winner Brendan Morrison and the rest of Michigan's fabled class of 1997.
"Morrison was asked to sign by New Jersey when he was still in school, but he didn't even ask how much money they wanted to offer," Berenson said. "He just said, 'I'm not leaving Michigan.' That's the kind of attitude you can't preach enough. That's a sense of family, commitment and loyalty."
"People are forgetting about development. If [the pro teams] would call the college coaches, the coach would tell them whether or not the player needs more development. There's not a lot of communication between the pro teams and college coaches."
Berenson vehemently disagrees with making the early jump to the pro ranks.
"[The NHL] is going to be there in the future — this isn't a one-time opportunity," Berenson said. "I've always been a believer that you don't have to take shortcuts to be successful. And the first thing — the most important thing — is getting that degree. I'm not trying to take opportunities away from college players, but if you come to school, you should finish school. If you don't want to go to school, you should go to a Major Junior league and play there"
Suprisingly, on October 3rd, the Kings announced that Mike Cammalleri would not play on the first line openning night but was sent to the King's minor-league affiliate in Manchester N.H. Cammalleri left Michigan for a $1.3 million signing bonus and a three-year deal worth $3.5 million if he remained in the NHL for the life of the contract. His Manchester salary will be around $75,000.