Reusse: ‘There is no end to this loss.’ Motzko shares pain, support after son’s death

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Giles and Bev Motzko left the hamlet of Rose Creek, Minn., in the late 1960s and headed for the big city, which in this case was Austin, 12 miles to the northwest.

Giles was leaving the Rose Creek bank to handle the financing for car deals at Jim Lebens Fordtown. Giles and Bev were moving their growing family into a house in an Austin neighborhood one morning.

"I was in the third grade,'' Bob Motzko said. "They were still walking in the furniture when I heard this booming voice say, 'Are these my new neighbors?' "

The voice belonged to Jim Sack, president of the Austin Hockey Association, and brother to Gene, a hockey legend in nearby Rochester.

Jim's next question was, "How many boys do you have?'' as he was looking to add players for Austin's fledgling hockey program.

"Jim signed me up that day,'' Motzko said. "My three younger brothers also played hockey, and my sister Mary was a figure skater.''

There was a family tragedy in February 1975. Jerome Motzko was a 6-year-old in the first grade at Queen of Angels elementary school. There was a snowdrift and Jerome and a pal decided to climb onto a large garbage container, dig out milk cartons, then stand on the ledge and pop those with a stomp.

Harmless fun, except the container tipped over, landed on Jerome and fatally crushed his chest.

"I was in the eighth grade,'' Motzko said. "Jerome was a great little kid.''

There was a two-paragraph Associated Press story in the Minneapolis Tribune under the headline, "Austin boy killed by metal bin." The full impact of this was left to Giles and Bev, suddenly members of that large club of parents who have lost a child.

Bob and Shelley Motzko suffered that loss in July, when 20-year-old son Mack died in a car crash caused by a 51-year-old driving wildly and allegedly impaired near Lake Minnetonka.

Mack was the middle child, but with an "older brother'' relationship with older sister Ella, and best friend to brother Beau.

On Tuesday morning, Motzko was in his office at 3M Arena at Mariucci, a couple of hours before he would be coaching his Gophers men's hockey team in a practice session.

The conversation ranged from Motzko's team of high expectations, to longtime friends who make up most of Minnesota's D-I coaching ranks, to the senseless deaths of Mack and Sam Schuneman, 24, Ella's boyfriend, their lives taken with a comparative stranger, James D. Blue, recklessly at the wheel.

The circumstances of these deaths, and with Bob Motzko a well-known public figure, has led to such an outpouring of condolences that I asked him:

"Have the condolences themselves become overwhelming?''

Instantly, Bob said:

"Nothing has been bothersome. What happened is the worst that can be. The outpouring of love and support, from Minnesota, from hockey and its people, has been unbelievable and appreciated.

"Fourteen hundred came to Mack's celebration. And another 800 watched online. And not because of Dad … because of Mack.

"Among those we've heard from have been dozens of families who have lost a child, who share this unthinkable loss. And they are perfect in what they say to you, because they know.

"They are perfect, and they also admit this: There is no end to this loss.''

Going back to encounters at St. Cloud State, I've found Motzko to be a straight shooter — ask a question, get his best answer.

That was the case Monday on a media Zoom call for the Big Ten's hockey preview. Asked about a return to the rink being a "new world'' for him, Motzko said: "The world that I had before no longer exists.''

He repeated that Tuesday morning, while being excited about getting on with this second week of practice watching six talented freshmen start to blend with a veteran collection that will have the Gophers rated in the top five when the preseason polls soon arrive.

"Our football coach, P.J. Fleck, is right when he says the best teams get their leadership from players, not coaches,'' Motzko said. "We had that the last four, five years at St. Cloud State, and I feel as though we have gotten there now with the Gophers.

"Ben Meyers came in here from Delano, didn't get drafted, but he's going to be among the top five college free agents for the NHL this spring. His training is world-class.

"Jack LaFontaine, our goalie, it took him awhile to become our starter, but he wound up being better than we thought was probable.

"We have leaders. And we have young talent that can improve as they did by following them.''

Last year, three Minnesota teams reached the Frozen Four: Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth. The Gophers and Bemidji State lost in the final eight.

Coaches Scott Sandelin at UMD, Mike Hastings at MSU and Tom Serratore at Bemidji State are among Motzko's closest coaching friends. Brett Larson, Motzko's replacement at St. Cloud, is younger (45), but also part of the mutual admiration society of former assistants and products of this state's hockey.

"Serratore, Hastings and I were students at St. Cloud at the same time,'' Motzko said. "As assistants, those two, Sandy and I … we were together on the recruiting trail on dozens of weekends.

"Hockey all day, chicken wings and beer afterwards, and then sharing hotel rooms because hockey had no budgets for assistants back then.''

Motzko was the coach at St. Cloud State for 15 years before taking the Gophers job after the 2018 season. Mack had been at the Huskies rink since he was a tyke.

He was in search of a D-I offer and headed to Penticton in British Columbia in the winter of 2020-21. The pandemic wiped that out.

Mack wound up playing for Stan Hubbard Jr.'s NAHL junior team, the New Mexico Ice Wolves, in Albuquerque. While there, he lived with Stan, wife Jennifer, three sons and Phoebe, a Portuguese water dog.

"Mack was allergic to dogs, and all our other host families had dogs that would affect his allergy,'' Hubbard said Tuesday. "Phoebe is hypoallergenic, so we gave Mack a room here.

"For a week, Mack stayed away from Phoebe; he didn't like any dogs, he said. Pretty soon, he was throwing her tennis balls, Frisbees, taking her to the driving range.

"Every night, she would sleep outside his door, waiting for him. Dogs know. That was Mack, a big heart, a young man with a sweet old soul.''

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