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Updated: November 2nd, 2011 10:04pm
Myers: Nicknames and all, Gophers-NoDak rivalry among hockey's best

Myers: Nicknames and all, Gophers-NoDak rivalry among hockey's best

by Jess Myers

A quick primer in case you're heading to Mariucci Arena this weekend for the most recent series in the generations-long rivalry between the Gophers and North Dakota:

Yes, despite the best efforts of the NCAA and other needless busybodies, you can still refer to Minnesota's opponent as the Fighting Sioux. In fact, if you live west of the Red River, it's the law.

The NCAA has famously deemed the University of North Dakota's athletic nickname as "hostile and abusive" and several noisy protest groups (only a very small minority of them actually containing Native Americans) have called - for decades now - for the teams there to find a new name. The school even announced its intention to bow to the pressure and retire the nickname by the end of the current season.

Then, the state legislature in North Dakota stepped in, and passed a law mandating that teams representing the state's oldest institution of higher learning be called the Fighting Sioux. Caught between the demands of the NCAA (which controls their athletic fate) and the state legislature (which pays their bills), the university was stuck in a state of limbo, hopeful that the lawmakers in Bismarck will repeal the state law later this month and allow them to move forward.

Then, earlier this week, the tangled mess of spaghetti they're charged with cleaning up got even a bit more messy, when one of North Dakota's tribal governments announced a massive lawsuit against the NCAA for trying to limit their religious freedom by essentially outlawing their name. In other words, if you were rushing out to buy Fighting Sioux branded items for your friends as holiday gifts, thinking they might not be available much longer, you probably don't need to hurry.

The fight over the nickname, like this hockey series, has been around longer than most folks can remember, and part of the intensity comes from the close connections on both sides of the flood-prone Red River. Whether your favorite Gophers-Sioux memory is John Mariucci taking his teams to the freezing cold potato barn in Grand Forks in the 1960s, or the 1979 NCAA title game where Herb Brooks won his third title by beating North Dakota, or a few more recent WCHA Final Five title games between the two schools, we have before us one of college hockey's oldest and best rivalries.

And while much of Minnesota is clearly Gophers country (with a few regional pockets carved out for the hockey followers of Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State in Mankato), a huge chunk of fans in the northwestern corner of the state has long considered the Sioux the "home" team.

That allegiance stems in large part from the abundance of Sioux games and highlights in that region's media, and the huge numbers of locals who have gone to school in Grand Forks. It also goes back to the days when a couple of Minnesota boys - Cal Marvin from Warroad and John Noah from Crookston - were among the determined students that convinced the school to field its first varsity hockey team in the late 1940s (when they'd already been playing in Dinkytown for a few decades).

While the Gophers recruit statewide, and even famously plucked the Potulny brothers from Grand Forks, their successes in luring kids from the northwestern counties down to the U have clearly been the exception, rather than the rule. Sure, the Gophers landed Tim Bergland from Thief River Falls, the Broten brothers and Aaron Ness from Roseau, Larry Olimb and Wyatt Smith from Warroad, and more recently Jon Waibel and Keith Ballard from Baudette. But most high school hockey stars from that region still look west to the sparkling Ralph Englestad Arena first, and elsewhere as Plan B.

Engelstad is the late casino magnate whose opulent and controversial (with its thousands of Fighting Sioux logos within) gift to his alma mater, along with the Fighting Sioux Sports Network's games airing nationally on satellite TV most winter weekends, have helped make North Dakota a national recruiting power. While the Gophers are still a "mostly Minnesotan" outfit (21 of 25 players on Don Lucia's roster hail from the State of Hockey), the current Sioux roster has seven Minnesotans, two from California, and as many players from Arizona, Missouri, Colorado and the District of Columbia (one each) as it has from the state of North Dakota.

All of that national talent and recruiting might has made the Sioux a common WCHA champion of late, as well as a regular participant in the NCAA tournament and the Frozen Four. But rivals are quick to point out that it's been more than a decade since they last hoisted a national championship banner in Grand Forks, and in the 10 years that the Ralph has been open there have been NCAA titles won by the Gophers (twice), Denver (twice), Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth, but none by the Sioux.

Despite that fact - or maybe because of it - expect a loud roar inside the home of the Gophers this weekend when the visiting team takes to the ice and is introduced. Sioux fans famously travel well, especially to the Twin Cities, where there are thousands of North Dakota alumni who will gladly take advantage of the recent trend of available seats at Mariucci.

Like this rivalry, the propensity of Sioux fans to show up here in large numbers goes back more than 50 years as well. Ben Cherski, one of North Dakota's true offensive stars from the 1950s, has shared his fond memories of the Thursday afternoon train trips from Grand Forks to Minneapolis that were packed with boisterous Sioux fans eager to visit the big city and cheer for their heroes. Although Cherski admitted that once the temptations and bright lights of Minneapolis surrounded them, it wasn't uncommon for many of those fans to miss the hockey games and not be seen again until Sunday morning, when the lengthy train trek back to the Red River Valley began.

With the home team's resurgence, many Gopher fans seem intent on re-establishing a notable home ice advantage at Mariucci. But when the history and intensity of their rivalry with North Dakota is taken into account, they likely shouldn't expect many visiting fans to no-show this weekend.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers