DULUTH – Ralph Romano became the hockey coach at Minnesota Duluth in 1959, when the Bulldogs still were competing in the MIAC. This was not a challenge to serve Romano’s or Duluth’s appetite for college hockey, and UMD became a top-division independent in the fall of 1961.
The goal was to join the WCHA. It seems preposterous now, but the seven schools that made up that league — Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College — were not that eager to add a school that they considered to be of minor prestige.
We’re not looking for trouble when saying that; just the facts of the situation at the time. For instance: The Twin Cities newspapers and other media outlets referred to the campus and athletic teams with the inglorious title of “Duluth Branch.”
Plus, Duluth was a more isolated location in the early ’60s. There was no Interstate 35 north. You still had to wind through endless miles of trees on Hwy. 61 to make the commute from Twin Cities.
Yes, the bus ride to Houghton, Mich., to play Tech was much longer, but that school brought a long tradition of hockey excellence. Duluth Branch brought a tradition of beating Macalester.
The Bulldogs were also playing in the Curling Club, a cold, hard old structure on the shore of Lake Superior. You might have been able to squeeze in 1,100 people if they were standing in every cranny.
Romano was able to recruit Keith Christiansen, a 5-foot-6, bulldog of a center to play for the Bulldogs in 1963. Christiansen grew up in Fort Frances, Ontario, but he had an uncle living across the border in International Falls, and lo and behold, he started living there during the school year and played for Larry Ross’ mighty I-Falls Broncos.
He came with the nickname “Huffer” — he doesn’t even know why — and accumulated 94 points in 51 games in his first two seasons. And then in 1965-66, UMD gained its admission to the WCHA, while playing its final season in the Curling Club.
The new Duluth Arena was under construction below downtown, near the water. UMD lost twice to the Gophers during that winter and finished last in the WCHA at 3-15-2.
I had my first job as a sportswriter that winter at the Duluth News Tribune and the losses did not seem to damage the enthusiasm for Huffer and the Bulldogs. An example of that being that two different Duluth radio stations were broadcasting the hockey games, home and away.
The new arena — later called the DECC to take into account the exhibition hall and convention center — opened for the 1966-67 season, and the Gophers came to town for the first WCHA game in the building on Nov. 19.
There was a photo of Huffer in action for that game on the wall of Scott Sandelin’s office, located in Amsoil Arena, the next new building that became home to the Bulldogs in the middle of the 2010-11 season.
The same photo came be found in the athletic offices on the UMD campus, four miles above on the hill.
There’s a good reason to remember that night: Huffer Christiansen had six assists and UMD blasted the Gophers 8-1. The Bulldogs scored three goals in the first 5 minutes, 13 seconds, and all Hades broke loose after that.
There were 12 penalties in the first period. There were a total of 27 penalties called in that game, and that was the night the hockey team from the main campus and Duluth Branch became actual rivals.
Christiansen was the WCHA’s leading scorer and MVP in his senior season. He became the first UMD athlete to have a number retired and has the hockey MVP award named in his honor.
The Bulldogs also moved up a couple of spots in the standings with an 8-15 record.
Even though the two University of Minnesota hockey teams are now in separate leagues, there was considerable intrigue attached as the rivalry was renewed Saturday night.
The Duluth crowd was able to see the Bulldogs raise an NCAA championship banner for the second time in seven years. Sandelin’s team had claim UMD’s first NCAA men’s hockey title in 2011 in St. Paul, and the Bulldogs did it again this April a 2-1 victory over Notre Dame, also in St. Paul.
UMD has 18 players back, including last year’s defensive corps that consisted of five freshmen and one sophomore, and are the preseason No. 1 in both polls.
Gophers fans making the trip to Duluth were more curious than celebrating: This was going to be the first game for Bob Motzko, as the coaching replacement for Don Lucia after 19 seasons.