Myers: WCHA rivalry ending, but Gophers, North Dakota passion endures
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Some neighbors are friendly rivals, always trying to one-up the other or prank their friend and doing so with smiles on their faces.
For many, the generations-old hockey rivalry between Minnesota and North Dakota is just like that, minus the "friendly" part. The states share a long border, and the coaches are often recruiting the same players.
North Dakota's roster features six Minnesotans, four of them from the Twin Cities. One of the Gophers' assistant coaches is from Grand Forks, and the newest pro hockey hero of most Minnesota fans -- Zach Parise -- played college hockey for North Dakota a decade ago.
All of that familiarity often leads to great passion and great hockey, and just as often, familiarity breeds contempt.
Gophers fans who have made the trip to Grand Forks in recent years share many tales of unfriendly receptions they've received from fans in hotels, bars and North Dakota's palatial home rink.
Likewise, the massive green-clad army of North Dakota fans that makes the trip to St. Paul each March for the WCHA tournament is not always greeted with open arms by Gophers-loving Twin Citians -- although the folks who sell beer and rent hotel rooms in the capital city are usually happy to see cars with "Peace Garden State" license plates pull up.
In 2006, at the NCAA regional played in Grand Forks, thousands of North Dakota fans cheered wildly as a deep and talented "U" team that had earned the tournament's top seed was upset by Holy Cross. Five years later at the 2011 Frozen Four in St. Paul, thousands of Minnesota fans returned the favor, offering nothing resembling sympathy when Michigan shut out top-ranked North Dakota in the national semifinals.
North Dakota star Danny Kristo and Gophers forward Zach Budish knew plenty of one another before college, when the former played at Eden Prairie and the latter at Edina. As college freshmen, they faced each other seven times and North Dakota ended the Gophers' season in the WCHA playoffs. Last season, they met six times, with the Gophers returning the favor and ending North Dakota's season in the NCAA playoffs.
Where Kristo and teammate Corban Knight are getting some buzz for the Hobey Baker Award at North Dakota -- the controversial "Fighting Sioux" nickname was officially retired at the end of last season and the school's teams are moniker-free for the time being -- they claim the Gophers are the true possessors of skill and speed that need to be countered during this weekend's two-game set at Mariucci Arena.
"The styles of play are completely different," Kristo said while meeting with the media in Grand Forks this week. "They're a transition, skill team and we're a hard-working gritty team. ... If we want four points, we are going to almost have a perfect weekend, and we know that."
The two teams enter the weekend with identical 8-3-3 conference records and are tied for third behind Denver and Omaha, which are tied atop the 12-team league. That makes the four points up for grab important. The schedule for next season and beyond makes them historic.
WCHA foes and rivals for more than 60 years, the Gophers and North Dakota are meeting for the final time with conference standings on the line -- and they won't meet again at all for at least a few years. The Gophers do not travel to Grand Forks this season and, unless they meet in the NCAA playoffs, will not face North Dakota for at least the next two years.
The "U" is moving to the Big Ten and North Dakota will compete in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. For the time being, non-conference foes such as Boston College and Notre Dame, along with in-state competition such as Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji State and St. Cloud State, will fill the Gophers' non-Big Ten dates.
"Who knows what's going to happen six, eight years down the line, but at least right now, we want to be able to play some new and different teams on a yearly basis," Gophers coach Don Lucia said, "and not basically play the same 34 games every year against the same opponents."
That means a de facto cooling off period for this rivalry for a few years.
Under North Dakota's former nickname, the University of Minnesota policy against scheduling non-conference games against schools with Native American nicknames meant nothing could be put on the schedule versus the Fighting Sioux after this season.
By the time the nickname was retired, the nonconference schedule for next season and beyond was set, without games against North Dakota. Both sides agree that the break will be temporary, though.
"I love the series. It brings out the very best in everybody. It challenges everybody to be at their best," said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, who added that the end of the regular season rarely means the end of games between his team and Minnesota.
"It brings a ton of passion on both side and that for sure carries over to the fans on both sides. That's what it should be all about in a rivalry series. The series will be back sooner than later. It will be on a non-conference basis, but the history and the rivalry will remain."
This weekend -- and in a few years when the games return -- a few hearty North Dakota fans will make the five-hour trek from the flat, open and cold expanses of the Red River Valley. They and several of the thousands of North Dakota alumni living in the Twin Cities will snap up any available tickets and make plenty of noise inside Mariucci.
Asked about the passionate fan bases in this not-always-friendly rivalry, Lucia grinned and couldn't resist taking one more shot at the opponents, implying that North Dakota may be a decent place to go to college for four years, but the huge numbers of their alumni in the metro area mean that you wouldn't necessarily want to live there.
"How come they want to move down here?" Lucia asked, rhetorically, with a smirk. "They want to move to the Twin Cities, do they? They like it down here!"
When a six-decade rival comes to Minneapolis, both teams are nationally ranked and there's nary a ticket to be had, what's not to like down here?