Matt Koalska proclaims his pride in his Polish heritage every time he drives his truck down University Avenue in Minneapolis.
The words "Polish Pride" that adorn the back of his vehicle are a source of much amusement for his Minnesota Gophers hockey teammates, but the U of M junior's "Polish Leap" will always be remembered for helping bring the Gophers their first national title in 23 years.
Koalska was the catalyst that sent the national championship into sudden-death overtime by tying the game on a goal with just 53 seconds left in regulation. After realizing he had scored, Koalska sprinted to the Minnesota bench, leaped over the boards and into the arms of his ecstatic teammates. They probably have Polish pride now, too.
"Back in high school (Hill Murray), every time we'd score a big goal in a big game, that's what we'd do," Koalska said. He finished last season with 10 goals and 23 assists. "It didn't really hit me until after. It was pretty sweet because at first I shot the puck and I didn't see it go in."
While it wasn't quite the same as Women's World Cup soccer player Brandi Chastain stripping down to her sports bra, it was a unique celebration for hockey.
"After the game, someone was interviewing me and asked, 'What's with the jump? What are you going to call it?'" Koalska said. "I've got a little Polish in me, so I called it the Polish Leap."
Grant Potulny went on to score the game-winner in overtime to give the Gophers a 4-3 win.
Koalska, along with teammates Jon Waibel, Justin Johnson, Travis Weber and Paul Martin attended the Brainerd Mighty Gulls game against the St. Cloud RiverBats Wednesday night at Mills Field. They are in Breezy Point for the week to work at former Minnesota hockey coach Doug Woog's camp and took time off to sign autographs and watch baseball. The Mighty Gulls' theme for the night was Hockey Night of Champions and featured the national championship Gophers along with Woog, Bemidji State national champion and NHL Stanley Cup winner Joel Otto, Pittsburgh Penguins chief scout Greg Malone and Penguins scout Chuck Grillo.
With a roaring hometown crowd behind Minnesota, the Gophers held a 2-1 lead after two periods and the noise level was nearly raising the roof off of the XCel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Then the unthinkable happened as Maine first tied the game with 10 minutes left and went ahead by one with just five minutes left. That set up Koalska's improbable shot.
"I just shot it and I think it went through a stick, a skate, and then it ended up going through the five hole," he said. "All game long we had chances, point-blankers and they didn't go in. Then you get a chance and the puck comes to you, you kind of look where the net is, look where the goalie is, you get it and you shoot it, and somehow it's like the puck has eyes. It's amazing, going through a skate, a stick and five-holing it."
It was a dream-come-true for a Minnesota native who grew up idolizing the Gophers hockey team.
"Growing up in Minnesota, watching the Minnesota Gophers, going to the games and listening in ... They had this thing called 'Skate with the Gophers,'" Koalska said. "That was the best thing ever, because you're skating around and the Gophers come out. It's always been a dream of mine (to play for Minnesota).
"There's so much pride and tradition at Minnesota, so many unbelievable players. I'm just glad to be part of it."
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