Myers: Finally, Gophers and North Dakota can renew cherished rivalry
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MINNEAPOLIS - When the Gophers face North Dakota on Thursday night, in the semifinals of the NCAA Frozen Four in Philadelphia, there will be plenty of history to recall for fans of both teams with long memories.
In 2005, North Dakota beat the Gophers 4-2 in Columbus in the Frozen Four semifinals. Just two years ago, the Gophers beat North Dakota 5-2 in the West Regional final in St. Paul, advancing to Tampa for Minnesota's most recent Frozen Four berth. It was payback of sorts for the 2007 West Regional final in Denver, when North Dakota's Chris Porter scored in OT to end the Gophers' season.
Of course, the true historians of this rivalry will go back to 1979, when Neal Broten's highlight-reel goal early in the third period in Detroit held up as the game-winner in the Gophers' 4-3 win over North Dakota for the national title.
For me, the thought of maroon and gold versus green and white takes me back to Dec. 14, 1984 - a cold winter night in Grand Forks, N.D., when I watched a college hockey game in person for the first time.
My high school hockey teammates and I sat high up on one end of what was then known as the UND Winter Sports Building, watching the home team, then known as the Fighting Sioux, spank the Gophers 4-1. We were Minnesotans, so many among us cheered for the visitors, even though a handful of my teammates would eventually go to North Dakota and two played for the Sioux.
As a northwestern Minnesota kid, proud to be from the State of Hockey but used to hearing about the Sioux, getting all of his news from TV stations and a newspaper in North Dakota, instantly I was hooked, on the game and on this rivalry.
We're a long time and a long distance from that cold December night in Grand Forks nearly 30 years ago, but the on-ice clash of maroon and gold attacking, and being attacked by, green and white still makes the hockey blood pump just a little bit harder.
Minnesota and North Dakota had played one another at least once every season since 1947, but that streak was expected to end this year. Long-time rivals in the WCHA, the programs went to separate conferences this season. The Gophers won the Big Ten, and North Dakota finished second in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (behind St. Cloud State).
Before North Dakota dropped its Native American nickname two years ago, Minnesota athletic officials instituted a policy under which they would not schedule non-conference games against teams with nicknames that some consider offensive. So, for the first time since before television was available in most Midwestern households, the Gophers and North Dakota didn't face each other in the regular season. There was such angst in some circles about the rivalry's end that one Minnesota state legislator even introduced a bill making it a state law that the Gophers and North Dakota play each other every year. It did not advance at the State Capitol.
But the Gods of college hockey apparently have a soft spot for this seven-decade rivalry. After Minnesota beat St. Cloud State in the West Regional in St. Paul and North Dakota out-lasted Ferris State in double overtime to win the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati, a reunion of sorts was set for South Philly. For Gophers fans who are used to seeing North Dakota at least once a year, and who have lost track of their old rivals, the Gopher coach says his team sees a version their next opponent when they look in the mirror.
"I think they're really similar to us when you look at their team," Don Lucia said this week. "From an offensive standpoint they're balanced. On their back end they skate very well. They bring a lot of offense from their defensemen as a group, like we do, and they have a very good sophomore goaltender. In many ways I look at North Dakota and see ourselves."
The Gophers enter the tournament as the odds-on favorite, having spent most of the season atop the national rankings. It's a role North Dakota fans know well from their last Frozen Four trip in 2011. That North Dakota team hadn't lost since January and got to the semifinals by scoring a dozen goals in two regional games, only to suffer a crushing 2-0 upset at the hands of Michigan in St. Paul.
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol has had the job for a decade, after taking over for Dean Blais in 2004. Blais won a pair of NCAA titles during his time in Grand Forks. On Thursday Hakstol will be bringing a team to the Frozen Four for the sixth time, but has only reached the title game once in five previous trips, and has not won a NCAA crown. North Dakota fans are known for their unmatched passion, and their sky-high expectations, and many have seemingly lost patience with the current coaching staff.
A few weeks ago, when North Dakota came to Minneapolis for the NCHC tournament and was bounced by Miami (Ohio) in the semifinals, there were reports of the "FIRE HAKSTOL" chant ringing through more than one downtown bar, as many among the thousands of fans in green who had come to Target Center voiced their displeasure. North Dakota likely needed Wisconsin to win the Big Ten tournament just to get into the NCAA's field of 16. The Badgers made it dramatic, rallying from two goals down in the third period to beat Ohio State in overtime. Fresh with new life, North Dakota promptly said thank you to the Badgers by ending Wisconsin's season in the NCAA tourney opener, then outlasted Ferris State, earning a trip to the land of cheesesteaks and Mike Schmidt bobbleheads.
Hakstol knows his team is the underdog. And as opposed to the ultra-high expectations they faced in their last Frozen Four trip, they're fine with that.
"I don't think anybody's really talking about our team, and I think that's justified when you look at the other three teams there," Hakstol said, admitting that Minnesota's top ranking has been well-earned. "The team that we play has been the best team from start to finish. Since October they've been one of the top one or two teams ranking-wise in the nation. They lead the nation in a lot of different categories and they are anchored by a Hobey Baker finalist goaltender. It goes top to bottom. They're fully justified in that number one spot. They've earned it."
Unlike previous North Dakota teams, where Hakstol had future NHL stars Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie on a line with Hobey winner Ryan Duncan, balance is the key for this club. Californian Rocco Grimaldi is the team's leading scorer, but when he's been shut down there have been plenty of other threats that have stepped in.
"I love how we have a full four-line team this year," said Grimaldi, a first-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers. "Every guy is in a vital role and there's a new hero every night."
In beating Ferris State, North Dakota was out-shot 12-2 in the third period, but Thief River Falls native Zane Gothberg's work in goal kept them in the game. In the second overtime, Edina native Connor Gaarder - an unlikely source of offense who centers the team's third line - scored to send the nickname-free club to Philadelphia.
"That's the way it has to be with this team. There's no other avenue for us," Hakstol said. "We've got to have everybody chipping in. Somebody different on any given night is going to be scoring a goal or two. That's just the makeup of this team."
For the Gophers, the rivalry is a thing that was unexpected this year. But Lucia says there's less attention paid to the particulars of who they're playing, and more focus on what it will take to keep playing past Thursday.
"I'm sure the fans will enjoy it. It's great and they've been a big rivalry over the years. But for me personally, I don't care if we're playing North Dakota or whoever," Lucia said. "The challenge is to beat a good opponent on Thursday. That's where your focus is. We're not going to get all amped up because we're playing North Dakota. It's whoever. That's the next in line on your path, just like St. Cloud was, just like Robert Morris was."
The Gophers haven't been playing St. Cloud State or Robert Morris every season for nearly 70 years. Still, it's somehow fitting that in a year like this one, when their rivalry was supposed to take a break, instead Minnesota and North Dakota still find themselves head-to-head once again, one game removed from college hockey's biggest stage.