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Fleck Feeling at Home in the State of Hockey

New Gopher football coach grew up attending Blackhawks games in Chicago

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- Then head football coach at Western Michigan University, P.J. Fleck showed up at a Broncos' hockey practice 16 months ago expecting a chance to address the team and perhaps hit the ice for a few minutes.

It was an effort to re-connect with his hockey roots, ones that grew strong sitting high above the ice at the old Chicago Stadium, watching Blackhawks games with his dad.

But as is usually the case with the high-energy Fleck, this easy trip to the rink became anything but.

Instead, Fleck strapped on a pair of goalie pads and took part in a full two-hour practice session with the team, even standing in and making a few saves.

At the end, he stuck around for conditioning drills.

"That was one of the hardest things I've done," said Fleck, an avid runner. "Definitely one of the hardest workouts I've ever had."

In his time in Kalamazoo, Fleck's love of hockey drew him close to Broncos hockey coach Andy Murray, a man who spent a decade as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues, and someone who is nearly twice his age.

Each has an intense passion for the sport they coach and the young men who play for them. 

"One of the class acts of hockey, both in the NHL and at the collegiate level," Fleck said.

On that October day in 2015, however, Murray put his good friend to work. Fleck may have acted surprised, but deep down, he knew he was likely to put in some manual labor.

"Typical Andy Murray style, you don't just show up and sign autographs and say hi, you actually practice," Fleck said. "I'm not a big hockey player, but I practiced for the full 2 1/2 hours. I was waiting for someone to take me off the ice, escort me out and get me back to work."

Born in Sugar Grove, Illinois, Fleck is a proud South Sider. His dad had two tickets to the Blackhawks, his favorite team growing up. 

"The Jeremy Roenick days, Steve Larmer, Ed Belfour, Christian Ruuttu, those were the guys I grew up with," Fleck said. 

An avid player of NHL '94 on Sega Genesis, Fleck usually picked his hometown team against friends, who would counter with the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings or Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins. 

But it was going to games with his father where his still burning passion for the game of hockey was ignited.

"We'd sit way up in the upper corner, two seats, but my seat was behind the pillar. So I had the obstructed view and had to lean around while my dad had the nice view," Fleck said. "But that's the way of being a young Fleck, you have to pay your dues."

It's a passion that has found a perfect match for his lifestyle in Minnesota, one that didn't take him long to discover first hand.

After being hired as coach of the Gophers, Fleck, his wife and other university officials were driving from the airport to campus when something immediately stood out to him.

"We passed about six hockey rinks," Fleck said. "It wasn't like there was a basketball court built there, there were hockey rinks there."

As he and Heather began looking at houses for their family to settle in, Minnesota's love of the sport became abundantly clear.

"Almost every house had play hockey rinks in the basement," he said. "That's when I knew we were definitely in a hockey state."

Fleck said he's made it out to a few Gopher hockey games already, running recruiting events at several different games since arriving on campus. Last Friday, Fleck made it to his first Wild game and gave perhaps the most energetic "Let's Play Hockey!" call of the season. 

And while he grew up on the Blackhawks, Fleck said he's already in the process of adopting a new favorite hockey team. He also plans to make Xcel Energy Center a regular stop during the football offseason.

"We'll be coming back an awful lot, I promise you. I just love the hockey environment," Fleck said. "I love the fans, the chants. There is an incredibly passionate fan base that really brings out the spirit of a community. That's what we love here."

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