The sea of green that filled a few downtown Minneapolis establishments Friday afternoon gave the appearance of a St. Patrick’s Day do-over.
The patrons were festive and loud and thrilled to be playing hooky from work. But the party also lacked something. There were no insults or trash talk hurled in the direction of people wearing maroon sweatshirts. And vice versa.
North Dakota hockey fans mingled in peace, while Gophers fans congregated similarly 10 miles away in downtown St. Paul.
The mood in both places felt remarkably tame and civil. Not necessarily boring, just different.
The Hatfields were on one side of the river, the McCoys on the other, neither one able to engage the other.
Where’s the fun in that?
“It’s sad,” said Gophers fan Jake John. “We love to hate the Sioux. As much as we’re rivals, we want to play them because their fans are so much fun.”
The two fan bases were sequestered Friday as their new respective conferences staged overlapping tournaments in which, fittingly, their headliner programs played simultaneously.
The Gophers faced Ohio State in the semifinals of the inaugural Big Ten Tournament at Xcel Energy Center. A few miles down I-94, North Dakota played Miami in the semis of the inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference tournament at Target Center.
Both the Gophers and North Dakota lost, which means the championship games in both events now probably could be held at a high school arena. How about a doubleheader at Braemar?
As strange as it sounds, their fans missed each other, presumably in the same way that squabbling siblings need that interaction.
“I wish we still had the Gophers on the schedule,” North Dakota fan Cliff Newby said. “I looked forward to those games.”
As rivalries go, Gophers-North Dakota in hockey apologized to no one. The former WCHA rivals have played nearly 300 times since 1930 and many of their meetings carried conference or national implications.
Alas, college sports revolve around money, TV networks and branding nowadays, and this split seemed inevitable once the Big Ten launched its network. Rivalries don’t rank high in that pecking order, no matter how much fans cling to their history and tradition.
That’s too bad because the WCHA Final Five usually provided a rollicking time that made downtown St. Paul come alive for the weekend. And if a Gophers-North Dakota matchup happened to materialize, the temperature around Seventh Street jumped a few notches as fans engaged in some spirited back-and-forth. Those fans loved it.
“There’s really nobody to do that with now,” Newby said. “Our biggest rival right now is St. Cloud, and they’re not even here.”
Both conferences encountered some growing pains this weekend. Crowds on the first day of the Big Ten tournament were so sparse that officials could have counted attendance by hand. In one display of protest, a group of Gophers fans, including Jake John, unfurled a banner that read “B1G Mistake.”
“The stadium got a good kick out of it,” said Jake’s cousin, Cory John. “I think everybody kind of feels the same right now.”
Not everyone was amused. Stadium workers confiscated the sign and returned it to the group after the game.
The NCHC nearly witnessed a doomsday scenario in its debut event. St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth failed to advance to the Twin Cities, and North Dakota needed three games to dispose of Colorado College.
NCHC officials would never admit so publicly, but they probably put on their Zach Parise jerseys and crossed their fingers that North Dakota would survive that final game against Colorado College. The conference would’ve heard crickets chirping inside Target Center if its inaugural tournament consisted of Colorado College, Miami, Western Michigan and Denver.
That’s not a rip on the league or its quality of hockey. But in the absence of a semi-local draw, that tournament will struggle to find its footing in terms of attendance. Same thing with the Big Ten in games that don’t include the Gophers or possibly Wisconsin.
Both conferences preached patience in response to small crowds. They sold hope that new rivalries will develop in time. WCHA fans were a loyal bunch, though. It’ll take time for them to get on board.
Not surprisingly, though, North Dakota traveled a respectable contingent of fans this weekend. They gave Target Center some energy and noise Friday night. It just wasn’t the same without Gophers fans screaming back at them.