HAMDEN, Conn. – It’s fierce and special mixed in with a big dash of familiarity. Both are confident in preparation to face one another away from the Midwest, representing the WCHA on college hockey’s biggest stage and adding a new chapter to one of the sport’s top rivalries.
Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s women’s hockey teams share the familiarity of trying to reclaim a national championship that has eluded each in recent history, as the two face off Sunday afternoon in the national championship game for the first time since 2012.
“We have been battling as number one and number two all year, so it’s fitting that both our teams are here and playing one another,” said Gophers coach Brad Frost, who has led his team to four national championships. “We bring out the best in one another, and they make us better.”
Postseason matchups have been the catalyst to a decades-long rivalry for the Gophers and Badgers, two of the nation’s top teams.
The Gophers and Badgers faced each other in the WCHA postseason or NCAA tournament during five of the past six years. Sunday’s matchup will be the sixth this season. There’s a healthy amount of respect on both sides of the river that forms the border between the two states.
Still, knowledge of that history does not stop culture shock for first-year players for Minnesota and Wisconsin once they skate into the opposing building. Gophers sophomore Grace Zumwinkle found her first trip to Wisconsin’s LaBahn Arena a completely different experience. Badgers senior Maddie Rolfes remembers.
“I remember coming in as a freshman and it was pretty scary to go into Ridder and play [Minnesota],” Rolfes said. “The confidence in the locker room wasn’t necessarily there the first one or two years I played for the Badgers. Over time it’s turned into such greater confidence playing them. We’re strong and confident, and we know that we should come out with the win, and that’s a huge change over the years.”
Minnesota made a 16-0-2 run on the Badgers between 2012 and 2015. The games since have been closer. Wisconsin, who last won a national championship in 2011, ended the Gophers’ season in the NCAA tournament last year and won three of the five meetings, including the WCHA Final Faceoff championship.
The Final Faceoff defeat has served as a learning experience for the Gophers in this NCAA tournament. Because of that loss, Minnesota will be the visitor.
“The last time we played Wisconsin in the WCHA tournament, it was a quick turnaround because we had the NCAA tournament,” sophomore defender Emily Brown said. “We have really come together as a team and everyone is fulfilling their roles to the best of their ability. We are clicking and firing on all cylinders.
“Just to play [Wisconsin] one last time, this time for all the marbles, is pretty special.”
As passionate as the Border Battle can be between fan bases, Frost and Minnesota try to keep hockey in perspective. At the end of the day, it’s a game. The special moments are not from national championships but the times in the locker room and spent together.
It’s a lesson Frost learned from his first few seasons as head coach when Minnesota lost in the Frozen Four after focusing only on winning the NCAA tournament.
Once he focused on the experience, the national championships started to come.
“We talk with our players and with our staff and wanted to come up with a message for our team. It was that we have a really high expectation for you as players, but we love you with everything we got and you’re going to know that throughout the year,” he said. “Tomorrow, regardless of the outcome, we will be so proud of our players, and their experience will be second to none.”