In-state rivalries still critical for Gophers despite new landscape
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MINNEAPOLIS - One of the staunchest arguments against the radical realignment of college hockey that's taken effect this season was created by fear of what it might mean to the small-school programs.
"What happens to Bemidji State," it was asked, rhetorically, "when they no longer have the Gophers coming to town every year or every few years to guarantee a sellout?"
With the state of Minnesota's five Division I hockey teams now playing in three different conferences instead of the single conference they all populated last year, there's no requirement for Don Lucia and company to travel to Mankato, Bemidji, St. Cloud or Duluth for non-conference games going forward.
But starting on Friday, the Gophers are making that bus trip anyway, heading to Bemidji for a pair against the pesky Beavers. Much has been made of the fact that generations-old rival North Dakota is not on the Gophers' non-conference schedule, at least not this year. But for Lucia and his program, playing the other schools within Minnesota has become the top non-conference priority.
"I thought it was a natural for us to continue to play. I thought it was a natural not only for our program, but for the other programs," Lucia said this week as the Gophers practiced for their first road trip of the young season. Recent Gophers games in Bemidji have featured at least a thousand or so fans in maroon, and Lucia expects the same whenever his team travels in-state. "Bemidji State gets to have Minnesota come up and fill their building, and have our fans come up and fill up their hotels this weekend. Plus the proximity is nice. You don't have to get on a plane to watch us play, you can jump in the car and travel around the state. It's good for everybody."
While long-time WCHA rivals like Michigan Tech, Denver and Colorado College are gone from the Gophers schedule, replaced by Big Ten foes Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State, the Gophers will host two-game series with Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth on back-to-back weekend in November. In January they'll face St. Cloud State (then either Minnesota State or Minnesota Duluth) in the first-ever North Star College Cup at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Despite being in different conferences, it's a big deal when Miami plays Florida in football, or when Wisconsin plays basketball versus Marquette. Even without conference points at stake on the rink, Lucia expects a rivalry with the in-state teams.
"If you're only going to play someone once a year and it's not for points, I'm not sure that same animosity is there, but we know if we're going to go into Bemidji or St. Cloud or Duluth or Mankato, it will be a big weekend," he said. "They'll charge a little bit more for the tickets and that will bring the full houses in and put the energy in the building."
Gophers senior Tom Serratore always has a lot to play for versus Bemidji State, with his uncle (and namesake) coaching the Beavers. But the players say bragging rights may be just as important as conference standings.
"The in-state rivalries are still huge," Serratore said. "We want to be the best team in Minnesota by the end of the year, so we take these games really serious."
Lucia played high school hockey in Grand Rapids back in the days when the Gophers and Minnesota Duluth were the state's only big-time hockey schools. He went to Notre Dame in a time when the Gophers still got most of the star players from northern Minnesota to come to the U of M. The Brotens from Roseau, Pat Micheletti from Hibbing, Robb Stauber and Dave Spehar from Duluth, Larry Olimb from Warroad and Gino Guyer from Coleraine - just to name a few - all chose the Gophers over college hockey options that were closer to home. By contrast, the current Gophers roster features just two players - junior Christian Isackson from Pine City, and freshman Jake Bischoff from Grand Rapids - from north of the Twin Cities. Still, Lucia knows that his team being seen in places like Bemidji, Duluth and St. Cloud is important for recruiting.
"No question, that helps," Lucia said. "We want to find and recruit the best players we can throughout the state and throughout North America for that matter. We are a little bit more regionalized in this state, but we still have to have the ability to go out and find the best players no matter if they're from Baudette or Duluth, Mankato or Fargo-Moorhead."
The Gophers' current crop of recruits are 2-0 after winning the Icebreaker tourney last weekend with home wins over unfamiliar opponents Mercyhurst and New Hampshire. By contrast, they've seen plenty of the Beavers, after winning two in Bemidji on the last weekend of the regular season in early March, then beating Bemidji State twice the following weekend, in Minneapolis, in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs.
"After this weekend, we'll have played them six out of our last 10 games, so we certainly know each other," said Lucia, who was overall happy with his team's opening weekend, but got them right back to work on Monday. "They don't crown any champions after the first week. We have a long way to go."
Although this weekend, in contrast to getting on a plane for a long trip to Ohio or Pennsylvania, they'll hop a bus for the four-hour ride to Beltrami County. The accepted lexicon of sports says nothing about conference alignments, but tells us that true rivalries come from a combination of geography and history. The Gophers and Beavers have both, and within Minnesota there are plenty of rivalries that are bound to endure within the new world of college hockey.