John Pohl helped lead Minnesota to the 2002 NCAA National Championship.
John Pohl is one of nine Gophers to score more than 200 points in his time at Minnesota. His illustrious career ended with a dramatic 4-3 overtime win against Maine in the national championship game. We talked with the Red Wing, Minn., native about that unforgettable game and weekend.
GopherSports: The Frozen Four was obviously in St. Paul in 2002. Was that something you guys were keenly aware of from the beginning of the season and did you make it a goal to get there and to play in front of your fans?
John Pohl: It was not like, "Oh, we have to play in St. Paul." Over the four years we were there we kind of got better every year and that was the next step. The year before we made the NCAA tournament for the first time and then the next step was to go to the Frozen Four. That was definitely the goal all year, but we never talked about having to get to St. Paul. We just wanted to win the national championship.
GS: Can you talk about your season in general? You did not win the WCHA regular season and did not win the Final Five, but won the national championship.
JP: That just shows you how strong the WCHA is. We finished third and I think at the end of the season we were ranked third in the country. I remember starting out really hot. I think we were 6-0-0 and then did not lose until late November. We had a rough patch like everyone does in the middle of the year. We were relatively injury free all year and began to play our best hockey at the end of the year, which is what you have to do.
GS: What do you remember about the semifinal game against Michigan?
JP: I do not even remember much of it. I know we won 3-2. We were kind of in control the whole game and they made it closer than it should have been at the end. Honestly, it is all a blur. That whole weekend is pretty much a blur.
GS: Is the championship game a blur too or do you remember that?
JP: I remember we called timeout with around 50 seconds left. I know we were up by one goal and everyone knew what was at stake and then they scored two on us in the third. I have only watched the game once, so I do not remember much of it. I do remember during the player introductions that you could not even hear the introductions because the fans were yelling so loud. The starters just kind of guessed when they were announced and went out one after another. Then they got the Hobey Baker chant going and it was just insane. It was a pretty awesome game.
GS: Is that the loudest game you have ever been a part of?
JP: Yeah, for sure. I have been in some other ones that have gotten loud. But if you are playing in an NHL game and it is not a playoff game then there is nothing really on the line. But to have everything on the line, basically at home and with a 23-year title drought and to win it the way we did was amazing. You could not write a better script or make it up as a story.
GS: So what happened during that timeout with less than a minute left? Take us through that.
JP: If I remember right, Bob Motzko tried to draw something up. He had something drawn up, but I did not even really win the draw. If I remember right, the puck kind of sat behind their forward and then their defenseman kind of chipped it to the middle. I saw it go to Matty (Matt Koalska) and I remember thinking I can get a rebound here so I went to the net. But he just put it right in.
GS: That had to be an emotional swing after Koalska scored...
JP: I am a positive person, but I remember the timeout with 50 seconds left thinking, "I cannot believe we came all this way and did not do it. This is the ultimate letdown." I think everyone on our team thought we would win the game. Keith Ballard brought us all together and we did our chant and then we go out and score the goal. It is so funny how quickly things can turn because I honestly thought we were going to win in regulation. I thought we were going to score again. In a matter of three minutes I went from thinking, "Our season is over and we blew this opportunity to thinking we are going to win in regulation."
GS: Then Grant Potulny scores the game-winning goal in overtime. You were right there too and would have put it in if Grant did not.
JP: Yeah, maybe. That would have been nice because then I could get free drinks the rest of my life. It was a good goal. It was simple. We just threw it on net. Grant did a great job all year with that. And if the puck would have bounced the other way Jeff Taffe was right there and he had 30 goals that year. We did a good job and had the right people on the ice.
GS: You did score in the championship game. Take us through your goal.
JP: I remember the goal. I remember coming down and being kind of tired. Honestly, I just threw it on the net and I remember looking down and seeing the pads and hoping that the shot did not get blocked. To be honest, there could have been six goalies in the net and I would not have known. I did not even look at the net. I just tried to throw it on net and thought he would catch it and we could get a whistle. But it went in and was pretty lucky.
GS: Some people say that Maine players had taped rings on their fingers before the game to signify a championship ring. Where you guys aware of that?
JP: I think they did and after they scored the guy quieted the crowd. They ended our season the year before. They were not necessarily a rival, but they gave us plenty of motivation.
GS: It had to be an unbelievable feeling winning a national championship in your home state and just a few miles from campus. It still has to be a great feeling.
JP: Obviously, they won it again the next year, but now it has been 10 years. It is not like these things happen all the time. Unfortunately, they do not occur enough. Obviously, I am biased, but it is probably the greatest game in Gopher history. To be part of that, winning a championship at home and to do it in dramatic fashion ... it is cool to be part of that. I remember talking to Erik Wendell during the week of the Frozen Four. We were at Xcel and I asked him, "Have you ever really won a championship?" He said his baseball team made it to the state tournament once. I said, "Yeah, this would be bigger." There were a handful of us that had won state championships in high school, but that was nothing--nothing--compared to the magnitude of the Frozen Four and the way we won.
GS: You tossed your gear into the stands after Minnesota won the title.
JP: I threw off my helmet and my gloves too. I don't even know if they made the stands, I just threw them.
GS: Has anybody ever approached you and said they have your helmet or gloves?
JP: No idea where they ended up. If somebody has them then they can keep them. We have all the memories we need.