ST. CLOUD – The last visit to St. Cloud State for a hockey game was on Nov. 18, 2011. Freshman Ryan Faragher was tremendous in goal and the Huskies held on for a 4-3 upset of the No. 1-rated Gophers.
The building was bursting with spectators and the atmosphere was charged from the start. When Kyle Rau scored with three minutes left, cutting what was once a three-goal lead to one, the St. Cloud State fans spent the remainder of the night standing, pleading, for the victory that finally came.
“I always loved having the Gophers here … loved having the chance to beat those smug son of a guns,” said John Kerber, a Huskies fan.
This comment came after the first period on Friday night, when the Huskies were holding a 1-0 lead over North Dakota.
This was the first game of the weekend series to determine first place in the new, eight-team National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The game was advertised as a sellout, but the place didn’t seem to be bursting with either the bodies or the energy that had been witnessed previously vs. the Gophers.
There is a disclaimer to that theory: North Dakota took over in a second period in which Faragher, now a junior, was lit up for five goals. Obviously, that took the steam out of the home crowd, while allowing the 1,000 or more fans in visiting green to celebrate incessantly.
The final was 5-2 and put North Dakota in prime position to become the first team to hold the Penrose Cup, the impressive trophy that goes to the NCHC’s regular-season champion.
I’ve heard plenty of complaints from Gophers fans over the dissolution of the WCHA as they knew it in favor of the six-team Big Ten. Apparently, the atmosphere for Penn State in Mariucci on Friday night was as electric as you could find across the street for a December hoops game vs. Coastal Carolina.
What I anticipated hearing from St. Cloud and North Dakota fans was that they had settled comfortably into the most competitive league, 1 through 8, in college hockey.
Nope. Whether in red or green, the eight or nine fans engaged were unanimous in their doubts about the NCHC as a full replacement for the old WCHA.
Pat Adair and his family from Lisbon, N.D., were in attendance. As a fan of the nickname-less North Dakota team (called the “Whioux” by opponents), he said:
“We still have Denver, Duluth, St. Cloud, but it’s not the same without the Gophers or Wisconsin. Especially the Gophers. We follow all the pro teams in Minnesota, and we followed the Gophers.”
Adair added: “We didn’t like the Gophers [in hockey], but we followed them. Even when we start playing Minnesota in a nonconference series, it’s not going to be the same.”
Four other WCHA rivals made the move to the NCHC along with the Huskies and the Whioux: Minnesota Duluth, Denver, Colorado College and Nebraska Omaha. The strangers are Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan.
“When you ask people here about Miami, they say, ‘McKinnie stinks,’ ” Ron Kosel said.
Bryant McKinnie played for the Miami Hurricanes and then left the Vikings under a controversial circumstance. Kosel was exaggerating St. Cloudites’ lack of knowledge of Miami as a hockey rival … maybe.
“The remodeling that’s been done to the arena has been great, but some of the crowds haven’t seemed quite as large this season,” said Darren Brix of Sartell. “Of course, I’ve been puzzled for years why Huskies hockey — a St. Cloud team playing at the top level — isn’t an automatic sellout.
“Maybe it’s the price. Tickets are affordable, I think, but it’s also St. Cloud. We’re kind of cheap.”
Darren wasn’t criticizing his neighbors, merely pointing out that 35 bucks for an excellent seat isn’t the bargain in Stearns County that it would be in Hennepin County.
“Everything considered, we’re happy to have the Huskies in this league,” Kerber said. “It’s tough … I mean, the team picked to finish first was Miami, and it’s in last.
“It’s just going to take some getting used to without the Gophers. I always called them the ‘Yankees of college hockey’ and you know how most people feel about the Yankees.”