Years of planning and national campaigns will come to life on Friday at Mariucci Arena. “B1G”-branded hockey sweaters will swarm the ice for the first-ever Big Ten hockey game.
Who better than the No. 1-ranked Gophers and No. 12 Wisconsin to show a national television audience what all the hype has been about?
Three hours later, Michigan will host Ohio State, also on national television.
Big Ten’s hockey debut purposefully will feature a historic rivalry that dates to 1922. The Gophers and Badgers have faced off 265 times over the past 10 decades and have a combined for 11 national championships.
“It’s important to kick off the season with a bang,” Big Ten associate commissioner Jennifer Heppel said. “What you have this weekend is interesting, from a hockey rivalry and a Big Ten rivalry. What was built there in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the history of the programs, it really is a fantastic hockey rivalry.”
Despite the decades of history these two programs built in the WCHA, no hockey conference has held the power and resources offered by the Big Ten.
For the past two months, the conference has pushed “The smile campaign.” From ABC, ESPN and the Big Ten Network to stadium and arena Jumbotrons across the conference, the Big Ten has used its reach combined with humor to create awareness about its new sport.
Big Ten figureheads Bill O’Brien, Tom Izzo, Barry Alvarez are portrayed in their respective sports environment and everything appears to be status quo, until they smile. Everyone involved in the “public service announcement” has a hockey smile, and Izzo is driving a Zamboni.
“There’s something new in the air. Call it a movement. Call it a trend,” the promo says. “We simply call it hockey.”
Simple is how Gophers coach Don Lucia would prefer to transition into Big Ten hockey. He doesn’t need extra promotion or any pregame ceremonies. He’s just eager to get into conference play. One thing Lucia can’t ignore, though, is the Big Ten’s power.
“They’ve done a great job so far [promoting hockey], and you can see the power behind the Big Ten brand,” Lucia said. “You’ve got brand name schools that are going to sell nationally. So that’s the point that can be really good for college hockey.”
Heppel will be in Minneapolis for the opener and will be involved with a pregame ceremonial drop of the first puck.
Once all the firsts are out of the way, the Gophers and Badgers will be happy to get back to their traditions. Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said he doesn’t anticipate any change to the rivalry. It’s appropriate they begin this new journey paired with the Gophers, Eaves added.
Lucia feels as if he and the Gophers are still competing in the old WCHA. They’re entering a third straight week against a former WCHA member, which has made the transition from old to new somewhat seamless.
Many longtime Gophers fans wish there was no need for transition and that the Big Ten had never nudged its way into the sport. During last season’s WCHA Final Five in St. Paul, a Big Ten hockey promo triggered boos.
There’s concern a pregame ceremony on Friday will draw more boos. Gophers co-captain Kyle Rau said fans should embrace the change. In five years, no one will think about the Big Ten as the bad guy, he said.
“Change is difficult,” Rau said. “You just have to let things go. All the players are excited. Once the [Big Ten] season starts, I think [the fans] will be as excited as we are.”
Even if it takes Gophers fans time to warm up to the new conference alignment, most of the other fan bases have been welcoming to the Big Ten, the various coaches and Heppel said.
“Everybody is ready,” Heppel said. “Hockey is a new sport to the conference, but not a new sport for our schools. … We were prepared and things have gone really well [thus far].”