There are only a couple of matchups in sports that make the hair on your neck stand up. For some that may be Red Sox and Yankees, Bruins and Canadiens, Bears and Packers. For college hockey fans, few matchups get their blood pumping like Minnesota and North Dakota.
In light of the Minnesota Gophers facing off against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks this weekend let’s take a look back at one of the greatest rivalries in college hockey.
In 2012 Penn State made the jump from ACHA to NCAA Division I becoming the sixth Big Ten school to have a Division I hokey program. This forced the Big Ten to create its own hockey conference, thus demolishing what so many Midwestern hockey fans loved, the WCHA. Some of those schools like Bemidji State, and Minnesota State stayed in the WCHA, while other schools like North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota Duluth, among others fled to the newly created National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Otherwise known as the NCHC.
While the border battles between Minnesota and Wisconsin remained intact, the Fighting Sioux and Golden Gophers rivalry took a back seat for a few years. As much as the two teams hated each other, there was little doubt that the players, coaches, and fans missed the trip to Grand Forks, or Minneapolis. With Ralph Engelstad Arena and Mariucci Arena separated by just 320 miles, it allowed fans of both teams to make a weekend trip out of it without emptying their wallets on air fares. The toughest part of the trip was usually getting a ticket into the game…
I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who once said “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes, and Gophers vs Sioux brawls.” Or something like that. The rivalry may not go back to the 1700’s, but it does date back over 70 years ago. The two schools were perennial powerhouses. They have a combined 13 national championships, North Dakota with 8 of them. The skill that the two programs possessed wasn’t the only thing that made the tilts must watch hockey. There was always bad blood. The intensity, the passion, and the pride for their school, and the hatred for the other team that was passed down from the seniors to the freshman year after year was evident.
One game that I can vividly remember is a game at Mariucci back in 2008 that I attended. The Gophers were having a down year that season and the Sioux were pretty highly ranked. Both teams usually brought out the best, and sometimes the worst, in each other, so the games were always competitive. Ryan Duncan, who had won the Hobey Baker the year before, was ejected from the game off the opening faceoff for checking a Gopher from behind. A couple other notable players in that game were Blake Wheeler of the Gophers and TJ Oshie of North Dakota. The game ended in a 1-1 tie but not before a couple fights broke out. This video below is exactly what I think of when I think Gophers and Sioux hockey. Players needed to be held back by referees, teammates, and coaches. I miss this passion, and hatred between these two schools.
Contrary to what you may believe from this article so far, they did play great hockey games too. One that comes to mind is the 2007 WCHA Final Five championship game. Once again the game went to overtime. A classic tribute to the types of games they always played. Only a few minutes into overtime Jay Barriball sent the puck down the ice and Blake Wheeler in a diving effort to prevent icing, swiped at the puck while sliding on his stomach like Superman and put the puck in the top right corner of the net. This was one of the most memorable goals I have of this rivalry. One of the coolest parts of that goal has to be the 19,000 plus screaming fans at the Xcel Energy Center.
Minnesota and North Dakota played a series last season and this is the second year in a row that the two schools will play series against each other after a three year hiatus. A nickname change later and we have the North Dakota Fighting Hawks playing against the Minnesota Golden Gophers again. This is what college hockey is all about. The comradery, the passion, the animosity. This is what we have been missing.
This weekend’s series features USCHO.com poll #8 Minnesota (2-2) making the trip up to Grand Forks, ND to face #4 North Dakota (3-0-1). The games this weekend can be heard on iHeartRadio on Twin Cities News Talk 1130. If you’re up North, the game can be seen on MidCo cable.