Minnetonka Teammates Adjusting to Accelerated Careers at U

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Max Gardiner expected to be in Des Moines this hockey season. Justin Holl made living arrangements in Omaha.

Both former Minnetonka High School teammates were heading for U.S. Hockey League teams until two roster spots on the Gophers hockey team became available in late July.

So the longtime buddies remain teammates, and they made the six-hour ride Thursday to the Upper Peninsula for this weekend’s WCHA series at Michigan Tech.

Gardiner moved from the fourth line to the third on Nov. 6 and had his first college point, an assist, in a 3-3 tie with Wisconsin in the Gophers’ last game.

“Hopefully that is a good steppingstone for Max,” Gopher coach Don Lucia said. “For him, it is not as much scoring as it is getting comfortable and making the right reads and decisions on the ice because everything happens so much quicker.”

After sitting out six games, Holl played in the tie with the Badgers.

“We made a decision going into the Wisconsin weekend we had to get him back in,” Lucia said. “He played really well on Saturday, to the point I gave him some grief after: ‘Where was this player the last few weeks in practice?’

“In an ideal world, we’d like every kid to play juniors before they are here,” Lucia said. “Going to play 50, 60 games or 70 games against 19, 20-year-olds — every game is difficult. Even in practice you are playing against … basically half or more of your team is going on to play Division I. You can’t replicate it.”

So it’s not surprising Gardiner, a 6-2, 187-pound winger, and Holl, a 6-2, 180-pound defensemen, have sat as much as they have skated. Both spent five days a week last summer working out at Mariucci Arena with their future teammates, which they said was good preparation.

“Training with those guys, I felt like I was part of the team already,” Gardiner said. “It would have been weird leaving to join another team.”

Gardiner got his spot on the roster when winger Josh Birkholz left before his sophomore season for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League.

Gardiner had an edge on most freshmen because his brother, Jake, is a junior defenseman at Wisconsin. The Gophers never recruited Jake, a first-round draft pick by the Anaheim Ducks in 2008, but Max grew up a Gophers fan and was eager to join the team.

“Jake might be a little smoother than me,” said Max, a third-round pick of the St. Louis Blues this year, “but I can play a little more aggressive and grind it up a little more than he can.”

The two renewed their sibling rivalry in the recent Gophers-Badgers series.

“I was on the ice [once] and he kind of jumped on me,” Max said. “It was a little unfair, I thought. I tried to hit him a couple of times when I had the chance.”

Holl’s spot with the Gophers opened when defenseman Nick Leddy left the team to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks. Holl, a second-round pick by Chicago’s this year, and Leddy were roommates at the Blackhawks’ prospects camp last summer.

“I was not disappointed he signed,” Holl said.

Holl scored the winning goal in the Gophers’ 5-3 victory over Massachusetts in the season opener.

“That was the best moment of my life probably,” Holl said, “hearing the crowd erupt and celebrating with the boys and knowing that [the goal] sealed a victory for us, it was absolutely thrilling.”

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