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Men's Hockey: Minnesota Natives Austin, Naas Excited for Chance to Face Gophers

UConn's two Minnesota natives are looking forward to the chance to face one of college hockey's premier programs when the Huskies meet the Gophers Jan. 1.

Minnesota native Johnny Austin is eager to take on his home state's premier team.
Minnesota native Johnny Austin is eager to take on his home state's premier team.
Steve Quick/The UConn Blog

New Years Day will be special for Johnny Austin and Spencer Naas.

While the old cliche of taking a season one game at a time is in effect with the UConn men's hockey team, Austin and Naas, both Minnesota natives, are looking ahead to the Mariucci Classic Jan. 1 and 2. The two spent their childhoods going to Mariucci and dreaming of playing for Minnesota.

On Jan. 1, they will be looking to beat the Gophers.

"It's a great feeling," Austin said Tuesday at the men's hockey teams media day. "I've been to Mariucci countless times as a kid going to games, watching the Gophers. To have the opportunity to play them is incredible.

"It's what you do. You go there at night, it's a family event. Every kid wants to be a Gopher. I mean, it's just an incredible opportunity for me and Spencer."

Austin and Naas played high school hockey together at Benilde St. Margaret before making the jump to college hockey. Both were standouts as freshmen last season, and they are expecting to provide even more as sophomores.

"Obviously, the Gophers are one of the top programs in the country year after year, so any time you get a chance to play a team like that it's exciting," Naas said. "Just to be in Minnesota, to be in the rink we grew up going to games and in front of our family and friends, it should be really exciting."

The Jan. 1 game is part of Minnesota's annual mid-season tournament at Mariucci. UConn will either play Ferris State or Harvard Jan. 2.

While Austin and Naas, like all their teammates, will be looking to win both games, the matchup with Minnesota certainly carries extra weight. It can be challenging for a player to go home, to the state he grew up in, against a team he grew up wanting to play for. But the two sophomores are already looking forward to the chance to go out to Minneapolis and pick up a marquee win.

The Gophers went 23-13-3 last season, falling to Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota is ranked No. 9 in the preseason poll and was one of 10 teams to pick up at least one first-place vote.

Minnesota will likely be hovering around the top of the rankings all season, and while UConn may be considered a few years away from being a national contender, the Huskies already have the confidence they can skate with anyone.

"I think once you get in a situation like that, you don't focus too much about the opponent," Naas said. "It's just, you try to play the game. No matter who it is, you try to win. It will be a little different with so many people we know in the crowd, and stuff like that."