MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Gophers will have three captains in 2021-22 as they look to get back to their first Frozen Four since 2014 and win the program’s first NCAA title since 2003.
Sammy Walker is from the hockey hotbed of Edina, and came to the U of M after winning the Mr. Hockey Award as a prep player for the Hornets. Jack LaFontaine is from suburban Toronto, which is perhaps the hockey capital of the planet, and won the Mike Richter Award, given to college hockey’s top goalie last season.
The third man with a ‘C’ sewn onto his maroon and gold sweater is Ben Meyers, a junior forward from Delano, who typifies the vow made by coach Bob Motzko at his introductory press conference in the spring of 2018 that the Gophers would get older as a program under his watch.
But wait ... Delano? Where is that?
“Growing up, the youth teams we played wouldn’t know who we were. I grew up with a lot of guys having success at the D-I level and we all took a lot of pride in being from an unknown place,” said Meyers, proudly repping his hometown of 5,500, which is 45 minutes west of the Gophers’ rink, and technically just outside the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. “Now you see Delano going to more state tournaments and I like to think we were a part of maybe hockey growing there a little.”
In fact, Meyers will be one of a quartet from the Delano Tigers’ 2017 Class A state tournament team playing Division I hockey this season. Forward Brian Halonen will be a senior at Michigan Tech, forward Johnny Keranen will be a junior at Army West Point, and defenseman Andrew Kruse will be a junior at Air Force.
Camping near the crease
When he arrived on campus two years ago, Meyers, who turns 23 on Nov. 15, was already older than some of his teammates who were juniors at the time. That maturity is certainly one factor that earned him enough respect from teammates that they voted him an alternate captain as a sophomore, and gave him one of the captain spots for this season.
But beyond the numbers on his birth certificate or the numbers he put up on the stat sheet last season -- Meyers is tied for second among Gophers returning scorers, having posted a dozen goals and 16 assists in 31 games last season -- there is an unmeasurable level of intensity that emerges seemingly every time Meyers laces up his skates.
“He’s one of the nicest human beings off the ice. Then he puts those skate blades on and you get the real Ben Meyers,” said LaFontaine, who has in the past compared Meyers to a silverback gorilla with the way he attacks the team’s workout room. “It’s like the Incredible Hulk, almost. Ben’s competitiveness, there are no words for it. And it’s infectious. The boys love it, and he rubs off on everyone. There’s a reason why he’s a leader on this team and it’s that intensity, that competitiveness and his work ethic is second to none.
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During his national championship-winning run at the University of North Dakota, forward Cary Eades was renowned for invading the opposing goalie’s personal space, and has joked that he was a great player, “from the crease in.” Meyers, who played for Eades with the USHL’s Fargo Force, may have taken a few lessons in that regard. Asked where his favorite spot is on the ice, Meyers did not hesitate with an answer.
“As close to the net as possible,” he said. “Everything that goes on in a hockey game, I want to be good at it. So maybe I’ll have to shoot from the top of the circles, but obviously the best place to score is right in front of the net.”
And that is not just a game-night trait.
“Ask him how many times my blocker goes into his back,” LaFontaine joked. “He practices like it’s a game, and when I see something like that, my switch is going to go on too. Ben is a guy that does it right every day. He doesn’t take any shortcuts and he’s doing what he needs to do. That’s huge, and then to be a leader on top of that, for the younger guys to see, it’s infectious.”
Focused on the now
In high school, Meyers was Delano’s leading scorer as a sophomore, junior and senior. The Tigers fell to Breck in the section final in 2015 and 2016, but finally bested the Mustangs to reach their first state tournament when Ben was a senior. At Xcel Energy Center, they fell to Monticello 3-2 in their opener, but rebounded to beat Mahtomedi and East Grand Forks and claim the consolation title.
Meyers was undrafted out of high school and instead of rushing to college, went to Fargo for two seasons with the Force. It was a career-changing experience.
“My game grew a ton in Fargo, and I have to credit the coaching staff there for that,” said Meyers, who returns to Fargo in the summers to work the Force prospect camp. “I’m super grateful and built a great relationship with everyone I was with in Fargo. It was a really good experience.”
The son of a radiologist mother, Traci, and a father, Steve, who teaches industrial arts, Meyers comes from an athletic family. Steve skated for UW-River Falls in college, while Ben’s older brother Nate played baseball at Minnesota State Mankato.
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Having never heard his name called in the NHL Draft, Meyers is a free agent, able to sign with any of the league’s 32 teams when he chooses to move beyond college. Pro scouts are high on him thanks to that intensity, that strength and his knack for going to the gritty areas to score goals. But while he pursues a degree in entrepreneurial management in the U of M’s highly-regarded Carlson School, Meyers is rooted in the here and now.
“I get contacted sometimes and people reach out to the coaches and whatnot, but when I’m here at school it’s not something I worry about,” he said. “I tell those people I’m focused on what’s going on here.”
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During his time coaching at Wisconsin, Mike Eaves once said that you have to recruit the top-end players to come to your program, and then you have to recruit them to stay once NHL opportunities come calling. Motzko said that has not been necessary with Meyers or any of the team’s pro prospects, who have made a NCAA title their sole focus for the next seven months.
“That’s what we’re most excited about now. The guys who are coming back, there was no sell job,” Motzko said. “They knew they were coming back for the right reasons, for what we’re building here and what we’re re-establishing here. It’s awesome.”
Captain from Crow River
While they wore the same orange and black as the high school team, youth hockey in Delano was often a regional consolidation that included players from Rockford and Watertown, which combined to form the Crow River Youth Hockey Association. Thus, Delano youth hockey teams were often listed as “Crow River” which is not a town on any Minnesota map, furthering some opponents’ confusion about who they were facing.
Motzko noted that in growing areas like Delano, in the far western Twin Cities suburbs, hockey success often follows the influx of young families.
“In the state of Minnesota you see these programs pop up, and I think Delano has been a pretty good hockey program,” said the coach. “Little Falls had a run and Red Wing had a run, and that’s what our state does. These communities that do such a great job with youth hockey get on some nice little runs. There are a number of kids coming out of Delano that turned out to be very good hockey players.”
And the Gophers are delighted that the best of those Delano kids, after a few years of learning and growing and getting stronger in the Red River Valley, arrived at the U of M.
“We’re just fortunate that Ben found his way here, because he’s one of the best players in the country,” Motzko said. “You can draw a line to Delano all you want, but there are some great players that come out of obscure areas, if you want to call Delano that. I’ll just call him a great player.”