Season-ticket holders Tom and Mary Johnston wore their Gophers hockey jerseys Friday not expecting any extra attention. They have worn the tops to most home games for the last four years, but this time people were noticing.
"It was interesting. At retails stores on the way in today, we got more comments than we ever have. They were all asking about the game and telling us 'good luck,' " Tom said.
"The game" is what Gophers and North Dakota college hockey fans have been waiting three years to see.
The old rivals haven't met in the regular season since 2012-2013, the final year of the old WCHA.
“People are genuinely excited well beyond this stadium,” said Tom, 60, of Victoria. “Even outside the hockey community, people are following.”
Tom and Mary arrived at Mariucci Arena two hours before the puck dropped for some unusual college hockey tailgating on the warm November day. Mary said her husband has been anxious for this game for the past five months.
“It’s a big night for all Gophers fans," Tom said. "It wasn’t good that we weren’t able to play them for this long.”
Mary missed most the energy of each rivalary game and was eager to see if Friday's game would live up to past meetings. Tom expects the rivalry to remain competitive, but knows it will be different now that the teams aren’t playing for points in the WCHA standings.
Tom and Diane Lentz have been season-ticket holders since the early 1970s and don’t expect the rivalry to have the same intensity it did before the birth of the Big Ten hockey conference. The couple reflected on the fight that broke out between fans at the Grand Forks bar following a game in 2009.
Scott Kerber reflected on the 2007 Final Five matchup between the Gophers and North Dakota when Blake Wheeler scored the winning goal in overtime, and the 2012 Final Five when UND overcame a 3-0 deficit by scoring six unanswered goals.
Kerber doubts this renewed rivalry will recreate the same hatred or intensity it had during those years. However, Amanda Erickson is confident “old dogs” like she and Kerber will help pass down the tradition to younger generations.
“This is king of everything,” said Kerber, a Twin Cities native and North Dakota grad that traveled from Dallas for the game. “When they took it away from us, that was kind of heart-wrenching. … I’ve been eyeing this game since the summer, but got tickets about a month-and-a-half ago. We paid $100 apiece for standing room.
“I’ve always told my friends this [rivalry] is like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees of college hockey. Ever since I went up to North Dakota, I’ve felt that way. It’s a big rivalry for us.”
Like Mary Johnston, Erickson missed most the atmosphere only this matchup could create.
Minnesota sophomore Suzanne Thieschafer and her friends from UND Jacob Mattfeld and Kevin Buteau were eager to experience this "one-of-a-kind" atmosphere for the first time Friday. Mattfeld and Buteau drove from Grand Forks Friday afternoon and dished out $90 each for standing room tickets.
“I know that it’s probably the biggest rivalry in college hockey. It’s what my parents always told me,” Thieschafer said. “It’s the first time we’ve played each other in how long? So I couldn’t miss it.”