MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Guentzel isn’t much younger than his boss, Don Lucia. The former starred at the University of Minnesota just a few years after the latter played hockey at Notre Dame. For a total of 11 seasons, spanning two different stints, Guentzel has served as Lucia’s assistant on the Minnesota bench.
Then there’s the young gun, Grant Potulny, a former player of Lucia’s and now one of his assistants. It wasn’t that long ago that the Grand Forks, N.D., native called Lucia “coach,” as he graduated from Minnesota in 2004. At 33 years old, Potulny is closer in age to the Gophers players than he is to the 54-year-old Lucia.
It’s Guentzel’s veteran presence and Potulny’s youthful exuberance that combine to make the perfect pairing for Lucia’s staff. The 50-year-old Guentzel is more intense, not afraid to speak up in practice or a team meeting — something that has come with more than two decades of coaching experience. Potulny, in his fourth season as an assistant, is still finding his voice off the ice and offers a more laid-back approach to coaching.
Together, Guentzel and Poutlny have helped Lucia lead the Gophers to the No. 2 ranking in the nation as Minnesota has a chance to win the WCHA title this weekend.
“It’s not all about me. It’s about being a team and a staff,” Lucia said. “We think the game the same way and how we want to play here. Obviously, they’re both former captains here. I think that means a lot, not only for the alumni but certainly for the respect factor for the guys in the locker room.”
While Potulny and Guentzel provide a balance of personalities, they also split duties on the ice and in practice. Potulny primarily works with Minnesota’s forwards, and Guentzel is in charge of the defensemen. Away from the rink, Potulny has led the charge on the recruiting trail. During the week, Guentzel is busy with video work in preparation for the Gophers’ upcoming opponents.
Just as the two Minnesota assistants have different roles with the team, both coaches took very different paths to the Gophers bench.
After Potulny’s Minnesota career ended, the 6-foot-3 forward spent six seasons playing minor league hockey, including four years with the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League. Coaching was never something that entered Potulny’s mind when he was a Gopher. Like many college hockey players, he wanted to prolong his playing career after college.
But injuries cut his professional career short in 2009 when he was skating with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals. From there, the transition was natural to step into coaching as he joined his former coach at Minnesota.
“The timing was right. I fortunately was in a position to have an opportunity to get the job,” Potulny said. “I give Don a lot of credit for taking a chance on me. This is a big program. There are a lot of guys that would have liked to have that job and a lot of guys that were definitely more qualified than me at that point, and he took a chance on me.”
Being alongside Lucia on a day-to-day basis has helped Potulny learn the head coach’s personality in a different way than he experienced while playing for Lucia. Still, it took some time to make the jump from former player to assistant coach.
“I think that was probably in some ways a little bit harder for Grant than for me,” Lucia said. “I’m sure Grant (was) transitioning from now he used to be your coach but now you’re coaching with him. I think Grant’s really grown a lot the last few years as a coach.”
Guenzel’s coaching career has taken a less direct course than Potulny’s. The former Gophers defenseman spent just two seasons playing minor league hockey from 1984-86. From there, he took a job as an assistant coach with the St. Paul Vulcans, a now-defunct junior hockey team. Guentzel later got his first chance as a head coach with the Vulcans before landing with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL in 1991. Three years later, he was back in Minneapolis as an assistant at his alma mater — initially under head coach Doug Woog, then eventually Lucia in 2000. After 14 seasons as an assistant with the Gophers, Guentzel left for the same job at Colorado College. One year later, he landed a head coaching job with Des Moines of the USHL. He spent just one season in Des Moines before returning to college hockey, this time as an assistant at Nebraska-Omaha.
Guentzel’s winding path brought him full circle last year when he returned to Lucia’s staff as an associate head coach. Even thought he was away from the Gophers program for just a few years, Guentzel saw things in a new light when he made his way back to his alma mater.
“You step aside and you step away from it a little bit and you realize the passion that Gopher hockey people have for the program and the enthusiasm,” Guentzel said. “As much as anything, the facilities and the resources and the commitment from the athletic department, all those things, when you step away, they’re much more evident to you. I think it helps revitalize your enthusiasm coming to work knowing people care about our success.”
Having both played at Minnesota helps give Guentzel and Potulny credibility among the current crop of Gophers, some of whom are old enough to remember watching Potulny help lead Minnesota to back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003.
“It’s kind of cool when we warm up on the rink and seeing their pictures up on the wall and everything,” Gophers freshman Brady Skjei said. “It shows they have a lot of pride in where they went. They want us to succeed, so we definitely recognize that and take advantage of that.”
Being a head coach is something that’s always on the mind of assistant coaches, but Potulny and Guentzel are both content with where they’re at in their careers. At 50 years old, Guentzel admits he may not have the same passion to be a head coach as he once did and has settled into his niche as an associate head coach.
Potulny, meanwhile, knows that head coaching might be something he’d be open to in the future. For now, he’s happy to be back at the school he won two titles at — and he’s hoping to help the program win another this year.
“For me right now, I played here. My family’s here. Minnesota is a special place for me,” Potulny said. “Being a part of this program, you get to work with elite players. That’s part of the allure here. And you have a chance to win.”