Last spring, at the end of a disappointing Gophers men’s hockey season, Justin Kloos was approached by NHL teams with offers of a fulfilled dream and a professional paycheck.
Kloos already had been part of an NCAA title game as a freshman, already had been a captain as a junior and had experienced the frustrations of the Gophers’ first season since 2011 without an NCAA tournament berth.
“When that opportunity is staring you in the face, it’s difficult to say, ‘No, I want to come back and pass up a contract,'” Kloos said. “But I had other aspirations in mind.”
Chief among them were leaving a better legacy as a two-time captain and the hopes of returning the Gophers to the Frozen Four for the first time since his freshman season ended with a 7-4 loss to Union in the title game.
Kloos helped lead the Gophers (23-11-3) back to the single-elimination NCAA tournament, where a first-round matchup against Notre Dame (21-11-5) awaits the No. 1 seed Gophers in the East Region in Manchester, N.H., Saturday afternoon.
The Gophers need two victories to return to the Frozen Four.
“It would be awesome,” he said. “But I’m not going to say that because I came back, the pressure is on to get there. I know how difficult it is.”
That’s a newfound appreciation, one formed from a first-round NCAA tournament exit two years ago, and an absence from the tourney last season.
It wasn’t long ago that Kloos, a Lakeville, Minn., native who starred for three years at Lakeville South, thought college hockey was going to be easy.
He was the first freshman in seven years to lead the Gophers in goals (16), propelling that team to 28 wins and a national championship appearance, where Kloos scored the game’s first goal.
Kloos was sure he’d be back in the championship the following year, but the Gophers haven’t won an tournament game since.
“That’s one message I want to leave for every incoming Gopher,” Kloos said. “Everything came so easy that year, and it’s not. It’s really hard. That year, I thought if we show up and play well, no one is going to beat us. I was thinking, ‘This is what it’s going to be like every year.’ ”
Over 154 college games, Kloos has 148 points, most for a Gopher since Troy Riddle ended his career in 2004 with 178. Kloos is second on the team this season with 43 points in 37 games.
That’s hardly been a surprise to coach Don Lucia, who said he envisioned putting a ‘C’ on Kloos’ sweater even before he stepped on campus. For five years, starting when Kloos was 10, he played on the same youth team as Lucia’s youngest son, Mario.
“Justin has always been a first-class kid, even when he was young,” Lucia said. “He comes from a great family and was brought up the right way. There was no question when he came to our program that he was going to be a captain here someday.
“He’s given everything to this program, and he’s going to walk away by adding a lot of banners to the rafters and getting his degree and having an opportunity to play professionally after this — but we don’t want that to happen too soon.”