Three guys shared a table and a few pre-game beers Friday evening at a restaurant in downtown St. Paul. Two were decked out in Gophers hockey attire. The other wore a North Dakota jersey.

Normally, that kind of fraternizing might lead to trouble. But like peace talks between warring nations, their conversation appeared remarkably civil, which required further explanation.

"I let him marry my daughter," said Gophers fan Mark Hofmeister, nodding across the table to Justin Geerdes.

Wonderful. Bitter rivals and in-laws. What possibly could go wrong?

"I just like to torment him," Geerdes said, laughing.

The two -- along with family friend David Madsen -- agreed on one thing: It will be disappointing if Friday served as the final meeting between the Gophers and North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five at Xcel Energy Center.

The two hockey rivals met for the 287th time, and this one had to rank among the strangest. Thoroughly dominated for the first 30 minutes, North Dakota climbed out of a 3-0 hole to win 6-3 on a flurry of goals in rapid-fire succession.

"If you coach long enough, you see it all," Gophers coach Don Lucia said.

Unless we're treated to another matchup in this same tournament and venue again next season, we won't see it again in the WCHA playoffs before the teams go their separate ways. The Gophers are set to join the Big Ten's newly formed hockey league starting in 2013 with North Dakota moving into the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

The Big Ten's decision to create a hockey conference altered the sport's landscape, and not necessary for the better. Yes, the Gophers will be aligned with their traditional rivals from other sports, and the Big Ten Network will receive more programming for its lucrative and wide-reaching brand.

It's hard to consider the upside, however, when the cost is a watered-down version of the Gophers-UND rivalry. And that's the best-case scenario.

"For a niche sport, Minnesota-North Dakota is a premier rivalry," said Gophers fan Craig Lamp, who attended the game with his brother Mark. "I think it remains to be seen if the Big Ten will measure up to the WCHA in terms of top-to-bottom competition. Or whether it's just going to turn into more of a corporate atmosphere around the sport."

You felt that emotion and electricity all around St. Paul on Friday. Seventh Street was a sea of green and maroon. Fans walked up and down the street, cheering and singing and, yes, taunting their opposition. It was a feisty, festive atmosphere.

It's just a shame this is going away after next season.

"I'm mixed on it," Mark Lamp said, agreeing with his brother. "It's going to bring a lot more money into college hockey, which is great. But you're going to lose the tradition of the WCHA."

We understand that times change. Conference realignment has reconfigured college athletics in recent years. Money drives those decisions, and rivalries take a back seat in the discussion. (Just ask Missouri and Kansas basketball fans.)

That doesn't mean we have to like it. Or agree with it.

The hope, at least, is that the Gophers and UND will schedule a nonconference series every season, but that's not even certain at this point. The Gophers won't proceed until North Dakota changes its Fighting Sioux nickname. That's the first step. Then the schools must find room on their schedules.

"It would be disappointing if we didn't play," Craig Lamp said.

Most agree the passion in this rivalry is too intense for it to disappear completely.

"It's an intense rivalry, but it's also respectful," Madsen said.

Especially when the rivalry bleeds into the same family. Geerdes actually attended Minnesota State Mankato, but he became a North Dakota fan about five years ago. He and his wife, Marissa, have two young kids.

Hofmeister used to buy his two grandchildren Gophers clothing, hoping to convert them, but he gave up because the attire "went to rummage sales."

"Nobody bought it there," Geerdes joked.

Geerdes' favorite team remains Minnesota State, but he had to pick sides Friday so he wore his North Dakota jersey.

"At least here, half the people are Sioux fans," he said. "I only get grief from half the people. If I come in Mankato stuff, everybody yells at me."

That just doesn't feel the same, does it?

Chip Scoggins •