Myers: Realignment means no one will accuse Gophers of not going east
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MINNEAPOLIS -- "The Gophers don't go east."
Despite a pair of games at Vermont this weekend -- the first time the Gophers have ever visited the home of the Catamounts -- that's the phrase you'll hear from many in the college hockey world. And the facts, at least in recent years, bear that out.
On Jan. 3, 2005, the Gophers lost 2-1 at Boston University in the first-ever game at Agganis Arena. That was the last time coach Don Lucia and company have played a regular-season game any farther east than Ohio.
But the trek to Vermont, and the move from the 12-team WCHA to the six-team Big Ten next season, will mean more plane trips where the Gophers will turn their clocks ahead an hour on the way to the rink.
On Wednesday, while chatting with reporters, Lucia revealed that with only 20 conference games on their schedule starting next season, they'll be spending more time in greater Boston, starting soon.
"Something we've got scheduled is a four-year deal with Northeastern and (Boston College) in the future," Lucia said, "and it's something I want to continue to do at least every other year, is get out to the East Coast and play some ECAC or Hockey East teams."
Of course, detractors for years have been accusing the Gophers of refusing to travel, saying that Minnesota was only willing to play nonconference games on its home rink.
Not so, says the coach, who notes that with the current schedule arrangement and the NCAA limit of 34 regular season games, there's not much room for nonconference play anyway.
With 28 WCHA games, two games in their holiday tournament -- and, until recently, a game each with Michigan and Michigan State played over Thanksgiving -- that left the Gophers just two nonconference slots to fill. Most years, those games have been played at Mariucci.
Next season's Gophers schedule is already taking some shape. There will be 20 Big Ten games, with the "U" playing two home games and two road games versus Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.
The Gophers also have worked out a deal to play two games each against the four other hockey schools in the state. So, pencil in eight games, total, with Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State, which will be in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and with Bemidji State and Minnesota State, Mankato, which will remain in the WCHA.
With two games in their annual holiday tourney, that leaves four games to fill. Lucia and company have a two-year deal in place with Notre Dame, which just happens to feature a freshman forward named Mario Lucia. And as the coach mentioned, the Gophers also have signed a two-year deal with two of the four Boston-area schools that will take them through the end of the 2014-15 season.
For fans in this region, what stands out about that future is the end of the Gophers' seven-decades-old rivalry with North Dakota, at least for now. After a Jan. 18 and 19 series in Minneapolis, it looks unlikely that the Gophers will play the as-yet-nickname-free team from NoDak for at least three years.
Despite some wholly unpleasant (on the ice and off it) trips to Grand Forks in recent years, Lucia says they will play again, most likely after the two-year agreement with Notre Dame is done. With the teams in different conferences next season, and with North Dakota maintaining the "Fighting Sioux" nickname until last summer, "U" athletic department policy would've prevented the Gophers from scheduling them for nonconference games.
"We're getting North Dakota back on (the schedule), but until that got finalized with their nickname this past summer, we couldn't schedule them," Lucia said. "We could've waited, but when you have a chance to play BC and some of these teams, we didn't want to get left scrambling to fill our schedule. Adding Boston College, Northeastern and Notre Dame -- those are good games for our fans."
As for the two newest members of the Big Ten, there is no varsity hockey at either Maryland or Rutgers, so the conference hockey schedule will be 20 games, for the foreseeable future. Most think Illinois, Nebraska and Indiana are the likely suspects for future hockey programs within the Big Ten.
"It would be nice if more teams added hockey," Lucia said. "Whether it happens, who knows? We're probably a number of years away from that."
For now, there's new territory to visit and a new rink to explore in Vermont.
The Gophers split a home series with the Catamounts last season and are in need of their first road sweep of the season to send a message about their competency away from Mariucci Arena, where they are 2-2-1.
Heading east may be unfamiliar to these Gophers, but that's changing fast in the new, realigned world of college hockey.