In some small way, Justin Kloos and Shane Gersich both feel like they’ve been part of the Gophers-North Dakota rivalry for years. Kloos used to imagine himself as a Gophers star in countless childhood knee-hockey games, squaring off against buddies who took the side of the Fighting Sioux. Gersich used to wear his Sioux gear to Gophers games, getting an early taste of an antagonism that runs as deep as the Red River.
Neither one has felt the rush of facing off in an actual regular-season matchup between the longtime foes. Still, they are acutely aware of the magnitude of this weekend’s renewal of the series at Mariucci Arena. “Everyone knows what this rivalry is about,’’ said Gersich, a North Dakota forward. “We know what’s at stake without even talking about it.’’
Friday, the Gophers and North Dakota will open their first regular-season series since conference realignment drove them apart in 2013. Much has changed since then; both are in new leagues, and North Dakota has changed its nickname (from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks) and its coach (from Dave Hakstol to Brad Berry). In terms of sentiment, though, it’s as if time was suspended.
Only a few tickets remain available, despite face values of $100 and up for many seats and $90 for standing room. Internet fan forums have crackled with memories and insults all week, and North Dakota alumni are hosting watch parties in nine states. Former North Dakota stars T.J. Oshie and Taylor Chorney — who now play in the NHL — visited Grand Forks earlier this week to brief current players on the history and emotion that define the series.
Kloos is among four Gophers who skated against the former Fighting Sioux in the teams’ last meeting, a 2-1 Gophers victory in the 2014 Frozen Four semifinals. That game, won on a Justin Holl goal with 0.6 of a second remaining, only added to the lore. As the series reboots, players on both sides are eager to put their own stamp on a rivalry that never gets old, no matter how old it may be.
“The one time I played in it as a freshman, it was an unbelievable game,’’ said Kloos, the Gophers’ senior captain. “It’s an unbelievable rivalry, intense and mean and hard-fought.
“These are the ones you highlight. These are the ones you dream about.’’
The Gophers enter the series ranked No. 13 and are 6-3-1 in their past 10 games against North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks, ranked No. 3, are the defending NCAA champions. The teams have combined for 13 national titles and have played each other 291 times since their first meeting in 1930.
In January 2013, they played their final WCHA series — suspending a rivalry that had developed over 66 consecutive years — before the Gophers moved to the Big Ten and North Dakota went to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The teams agreed later that year to resume regular-season competition at Mariucci this season and in Grand Forks next season, and they also will meet in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Las Vegas in October 2018.
No current North Dakota players have ever skated against the Gophers. Seniors Gage Ausmus and Matt Hrynkiw were on the roster for the 2014 Frozen Four game but did not play. Still, Berry — himself a veteran of the series when he played at North Dakota in the early 1980s — has been sharing stories of the rivalry with his players, and he expects the ferocity and hostility to resume immediately.
“Our staff has been together here for quite a while, and we try to go back to the memories of those special years when we played each other,’’ Berry said. “Those were big weekends, intense weekends. This is something we cherish, and we’re really excited to get it going again.’’
Several of the players have experienced the rivalry as fans. Gersich, a sophomore from Chaska, has rooted for North Dakota since age 10 and delighted in wearing his Sioux regalia to the series — even at Mariucci. Gophers senior defenseman Jake Bischoff of Grand Rapids learned about the rivalry from his dad, Grant, a Gophers forward from 1988-91.
All of them have vivid memories, with several mentioning an infamous 2012 fight in the handshake line. The series always has had an acrimonious edge, which only makes them more eager to be part of it.
“My dad used to love playing North Dakota,’’ said Bischoff, who added that his large family is arguing over his tickets. “Watching as a kid, I remember it being super intense; all the players would be getting into it with each other, and all the games were really competitive. It was always fun as a fan. Now, getting to play it should be unbelievable.’’
Kloos said all that anticipation will have minds and feet racing on both teams. He predicted the first 15 minutes will be critical, and the team best able to play with intelligence, control and unrelenting drive will win.
After talking about history all week, Gersich said, he and his teammates are ready to make some.
“Adding to the tradition is something that’s part of our culture here,’’ said Gersich, a nephew of former Gophers stars Neal, Aaron and Paul Broten. “For two games this weekend, we can do that. It’s been a long time coming.’’