Updated: November 5th, 2011 12:20am
Zulgad: Gophers' icy relations with Sioux could be thing of the past

Zulgad: Gophers' icy relations with Sioux could be thing of the past

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - Don Lucia had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek as he offered a synopsis of his team's 2-0 victory over North Dakota on Friday night in Mariucci Arena.

"Just another ho-hum game, huh?" the Gophers men's hockey coach joked.

Lucia's team had improved its WCHA-leading record to 5-0-0 and won for the eighth time in nine games in a contest that carried such a high intensity level both on the ice and in the stands that it felt as if it was being played in late March, not early November.

The teams combined for 29 penalties and were assessed 69 minutes in infractions. With 6 minutes, 20 seconds left in the second period, there were five North Dakota and four Gophers players in the penalty boxes. It was literally standing room only.

Most had landed there when four scrums had broken out around Kent Patterson after the Sioux's Dan Senkbeil attempted to jab his stick at a puck being covered by the Gophers goalie.

When the ensuing wrestling matches were finally broken up by the officials, the offending players took to verbally assaulting each other by yelling over the scorer's table at Mariucci.

The level of vitriol might have been excessive but it was a beautiful thing to see in that it served as another reminder of why the Gophers-Sioux rivalry is one of the best in college hockey.

There was plenty of highly entertaining hockey, as well, especially if you were a Gophers fan. This included a successful and at times dominant five-minute penalty kill in the middle period after the Gophers' Seth Ambroz was called for a hit to the head.

All of this is what made watching Friday's game a bit of a melancholy experience.

The clock is ticking when it comes to the level of hatred these two opponents feel for one another.

The Gophers are set to leave the WCHA in 2013-14 to join the new Big Ten hockey conference. North Dakota is headed to the eight-team National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

During an appearance on "Judd & Phunn" on Friday morning, and yes that's a shameless plug for the show that Joe Anderson and I host from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday on 1500 ESPN, Lucia expressed a desire to continue playing North Dakota but couldn't guarantee it will happen.

As things currently stand, the Gophers could not play the Fighting Sioux once the teams leave the WCHA because the University of Minnesota employs a rule that its teams can't play a non-conference game against a school that uses an American Indian Nickname that is considered to be offensive.

There has been plenty of back-and-forth, including lawsuits, on this issue but it stands to reason that with two full seasons remaining before these conference changes take place that North Dakota officials will be able to work out something when it comes to the university's nickname.

What might be the real sticking point is the number of conference games North Dakota will end up playing. Lucia's theory is the Sioux will play each of the seven teams in their league in a two-game, home-and-home format, meaning as a starting point 28 games would be booked.

Nonetheless, Lucia remained optimistic saying, "It looks like we will continue to play North Dakota. But will it be every single year? It probably will be difficult to do that."

Separate the Gophers and Sioux as conference opponents and the intensity that was on display Friday night at Mariucci dies down in a big way. Have the teams meet once every few years in a series held in Minneapolis or Grand Forks, and the only thing left will be the memory of a rivalry that once existed.

It wouldn't be surprising to see the teams still try to play each other based on the fact they know they can fill their respective buildings, but that is all about finances and less about something that took years to develop.

That's too bad.

The Gophers will continue to face long-time rival Wisconsin in their new conference -- and teams like Michigan and Michigan State could become the enemy very quickly -- but a compelling argument can be made that right now North Dakota is the most-hated of Minnesota's opponents.

It would be difficult for anyone who spent Friday night in Mariucci Arena to argue that point.

"This has to be one of my favorites games to play in," said Gophers center Nick Bjugstad, who scored the first goal Friday. "Obviously, playing North Dakota at our place, it's crazy, the fans are into it. There's just no better game you can play in. It's a man's game. Everyone's hitting out there, it's pretty tough and I think that's what makes it fun."

So when was the last time Bjugstad saw nine guys in the penalty boxes at the same time?

"I think last year we kind of had a similar situation with a fight in between the second and third (periods) on Friday night up in Grand Forks," he said. "It was pretty fun. There were a lot of scrums going on and guys going at it. So it's a blast."

A memo to Bjugstad and others: Enjoy it while it lasts. Round 2 for this series is at 7:35 p.m. Saturday with the return match Jan. 13-14 in North Dakota.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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