The Wait Is Over

Minnesota's Carman is wiser, and not just from class

Jan. 10, 2008

By Elliot Olshansky

CSTV.com

 



ELLIOT OLSHANSKY

Elliot is CSTV.com's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on CSTV.com.
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On Friday, it will have been 292 days since Minnesota fell to North Dakota in the West Regional of the 2007 NCAA tournament.

 

For a hockey program as successful as Minnesota's, that isn't a particularly significant number. After all, while the Gophers' five NCAA championships, six Broadmoor Trophies, 10 McNaughton Cups and 31 NCAA tournament appearances place them among the most successful programs in college hockey history, the nature of sports is such that every other season - at least, since the NCAA began awarding a championship in 1948 - has ended in a disappointing loss.

 

For Mike Carman, though, that 292nd day has stood out on the calendar for months. On Friday, Carman will be as excited about getting dressed as he has for more than nine months.


 

 

 

"It's going to feel great to have the Maroon and Gold on again," he said.

 

***

 

June 6 - University of Minnesota men's hockey head coach Don Lucia announced today that center Mike Carman (Apple Valley, Minn.) will not compete with the Golden Gophers for the first semester of the 2007-08 season.

 

The news that Carman was academically ineligible for the first semester hit him harder than any opponent ever could.

 

"I think he thought he could use the summer to get eligible," Lucia recalled, "and I think he was surprised when he found out he couldn't. It was disappointing for everybody."

 

"The coaching staff was disappointed," Carman said, "not only that I wasn't playing, but that I hadn't held up my end of the bargain with school and done my part to stay eligible."

 

Carman had certainly been doing his part on the ice. He had closed the season on a five-game point streak, including a goal in each of Minnesota's NCAA tournament games and an assist in each of the Gophers' games at the WCHA Final Five. He finished the season with 20 points in 41 games, a key member of the team that claimed both the McNaughton and the Broadmoor as WCHA regular-season and tournament champions and was an overtime goal away from the Frozen Four.

 

"He had such a great finish to his freshman year," Lucia said. "He really played well the second half of last year for us."

 

Carman continued his strong performance with an impressive showing at USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, but for the time being, he was all dressed up with no place to go.

 

Sort of.

 

Carman caught the eye of the WHL's Kelowna Rockets. As a third-round pick (81st overall) of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, with a likely professional career ahead, Carman could see where the opportunity to play a full season could be beneficial to his development.

 

"At first," Carman said, "I was kind of in shock about it all, and I didn't really think about it right away, but the idea had kind of grown on me a little bit throughout the summer, as I thought about sitting out. I knew how difficult that was going to be."

 

Avalanche management, meanwhile, allowed Carman to make his own decision, knowing the value of the experience he was getting at Minnesota.

 

"I had discussed the option with them," Carman said, "but there was never any pressure with them. They told me that they were going to back me in whatever I wanted to do."

 

"I think that they feel comfortable that he's in a good spot," Lucia said of the Avalanche brass. "As a coach here, I have more dialogue with their organization than anybody else. Craig Billington's been great to talk to and keep tabs on the players that they have in our program, and I know that when I've talked to him, he's felt very comfortable and happy that guys are in our program. He's seen what we do, and likes what goes on in our program. It's nice when you have an organization that gives you that constant feedback."

 

The decision, ultimately, rested with Carman, and it was one that he struggled with. He spoke with Lucia, consulted his family, and eventually came to a decision that he felt was best for him. He would stay in school, watching from the sidelines as the Gophers played a first half that included the Ice Breaker Tournament, a series at North Dakota and the College Hockey Showcase. It would be difficult, but it was what Carman felt he had to do.

 

"I didn't want to leave on a bad note," Carman said. "I didn't want to leave school not being eligible to play. I just wanted to fix my errors and the best way to do that was to stay in school."

 

Lucia had never entertained much doubt.

 

"I wasn't that concerned about that," Lucia said of a possible departure to major junior. "Mike's from a real good family, and I think education is important to them."

 

***

 

Aug. 13 - Golden Gopher forward/defenseman Jim O'Brien (Maplewood, Minn.) has decided to forgo his final three years of eligibility and has left the University of Minnesota men's hockey team to play for Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League.

 

Oct. 15 - Junior forward Ryan Stoa, the left wing on the Minnesota men's hockey team's top line last weekend, will miss the remainder of the 2007-08 season with an injury suffered in Saturday's win over Michigan.

 

The first half of the season has been a difficult one for Carman to watch from the sidelines. After opening the season with wins over RPI and Michigan in the Ice Breaker, the Gophers started WCHA play 0-4 for the first time in program history, recorded only one WCHA sweep in the first half of the season, and took just one point in the College Hockey Showcase, their worst performance in the annual series against Michigan and Michigan State since 2002.

 

Carman, however, stayed focused on the road ahead.

 

"We had kind of a plan," Lucia said. "I think he was going to get enough to keep himself in shape and ready to play.

 

Part of what Carman got was an opportunity to play for the U.S. Men's Select Team at the Deutschland Cup. Carman traveled to Germany with a group of American professional players, and helped the U.S. to a second place finish.

 

"That was a real good experience," Carman said. "I was playing against men. It was like going and playing professional hockey from here in the AHL. I was playing with guys 10 or 15 years older than me. It was a pretty tough challenge, having not played, and the age difference and strength. I probably didn't play my best hockey over there, but it was good to get some games in."

 

Carman was also named to the U.S. National Junior Team, which took fourth at the 2008 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. Carman scored two goals and added an assist in six games and tied for third on the team with a +3 rating for the tournament.

 

However, with limited opportunity to play in games, the majority of Carman's focus was on finding other ways to help the team.

 

"I think that Mike's worked hard to be in good condition," Lucia said. "He's been able to simulate other people's power plays the first half of the year in practice, so I think it was good for him to be able to do all of those types of things."

 

***

 

Dec. 19 - University of Minnesota sophomore Kyle Okposo has chosen to forgo the remainder of the 2007-08 season and his career with the Golden Gophers to sign a contract with the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League.

 

As if the Gophers' first half struggles weren't enough, there was the news that came while Carman, Okposo and the rest of the National Junior Team were in the air over the Atlantic Ocean.

 

"Kyle's definitely going to be missed," Carman said. "He was a big part of our team, but he had a decision to make, and he chose to turn pro. That's a hard decision for anyone to turn down, to play professional hockey."

 

With Carman's return imminent when news broke of Okposo's departure, it would be tempting to cast Carman as a replacement. Those would be big skates to fill, given Okposo's dazzling offensive skill and gaudy numbers last season. However, Carman doesn't think Okposo's departure affects him any more than any other Gopher.

 

"I don't think it really adds any more pressure coming back," Carman said. The whole team, we have to fill a void there. We're losing one of our top offensive players. Working with the guys, I hope we can make amends for his departure."

 

To Lucia, Carman's return is about Carman, and not anyone who might be gone from the locker room.

 

"It's another body, No. 1," Lucia said. "The way Mike plays, he's the type of player we can really use, because he plays with great energy. He's very good on the forecheck, plays the body and is obviously going to be a top six forward for us."

 

 

***

 

Jan. 9 - Minnesota returns to WCHA play with the first of eight straight league series to conclude the regular season. The Gophers host St. Cloud State on Friday and travel to St. Cloud on Saturday. Both teams enter the weekend in a tight race in the middle of the WCHA standings as seven teams are separated by five points.

 

It's been a long road back, with tough nights spent and lessons learned, but Carman will suit up at Mariucci Arena for the first time this season Friday. Lucia, obviously, is looking forward to Carman's season debut.

 

"The bottom line is that we knew when Mike came back that we were bringing back a top-two-line center," Lucia said, "and now we've got a guy that's going to play on the power play. We have a guy that's going to kill penalties. We have a guy who's going to play four-on-four. We have a guy who's going to be on the ice in the last minute when we're ahead by a goal, and the last minute when we're behind by a goal. That's an important guy to have in your lineup."

 

For Carman, it's worth everything that he had to go through in order to return.

 

"Growing up in Minnesota," Carman said, "everyone wants to wear the Maroon and Gold. Every little kid dreams about it, growing up playing. It does mean a lot to me to wear the `M.' It was a dream come true for me when the Gophers offered me a scholarship and I didn't want to leave them on a bad note. I didn't want to leave with a tainted image and I wanted to prove to everyone that I could do the work that I needed to do to fix what I had done wrong and have a chance to play with my teammates again."

 

Friday, he'll get that chance.

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