For all the fretting about the first year of the Big Split in men’s college hockey, the 2013-14 regular season really wasn’t all that bad — at least if you follow the Gophers (and therefore believe you are the center of the college hockey universe).
There was an early series at Bemidji State, home series against Minnesota State Mankato and Minnesota Duluth, the outdoor Hockey City Classic and North Star Cup games against Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. Four games against Wisconsin and Michigan, along with the rest of the Big Ten slate, filled out the schedule rather nicely.
But now ... this is the time of year when we really start to feel the void. More specifically, this weekend is just going to feel flat-out weird. There’s just no other way to put it.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are playing at Xcel Energy Center with the rest of the Big Ten teams in their postseason tournament. North Dakota is across the river at Target Center in the first National Collegiate Hockey Conference tournament. Minnesota State is out in Michigan for (what’s left of) the WCHA tournament. St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth are at home, ousted in first-round NCHC series.
Five of those six teams — and their glorious, sparring fan bases — were in St. Paul last year for the old WCHA’s farewell tournament.
The WCHA Final Five was a destination event for the nation’s best conference. It was a battle for regional bragging rights, with alcohol — for better or worse — fueling some increasingly loud debates among passionate fans.
Now there are even separate drinking rules. It’s pretty much wide open with the NCHC at Target Center — beer, wine and alcohol sold in all concourses. At Xcel Energy Center for the Big Ten, such beverages will only be sold on the club level, the Budweiser Fan Zone and a plaza near Gate 1 (though all ticketed fans have access to the club level).
My sincere hope is that Gophers fans and North Dakota fans still find a way to mingle, joined by a common love of rivalry instead of separated by a river. Maybe they could even meet halfway Friday — I mapped it, and the Dubliner is about 5 miles from both arenas — after both teams play?
Yes, the tournaments need a chance to evolve and new rivalries a chance to develop. But as someone who has spent almost exactly the same amount of his life living in Grand Forks and Minneapolis, recognizing the need for patience won’t make this weekend any less strange.