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Continued: End of an era: Gophers vs. North Dakota

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 18, 2013 - 11:51 AM

The stories, Doug Woog knows, will always remain. The veteran of the 83-year hockey feud between the Gophers and North Dakota -- as player, coach, fan and broadcaster -- has been reveling in nostalgia this week, during the buildup to the final regular-season WCHA series between the teams.

Woog recalled the Quonset hut where the former Fighting Sioux played, a tin can where the boards were made of chicken wire and a veterinarian stitched up players injured in those knock-down, drag-out battles of the 1950s and '60s.

There were the chants of "USA! USA!'' hollered by Gophers fans, in support of Minnesota boys playing against North Dakota's rosters of older Canadians. And the actual four-legged gophers -- deceased, of course -- smuggled in underneath the coats of those who waited in below-zero temperatures to toss them onto the ice in Grand Forks.

Years from now, those attending Friday's and Saturday's games at Mariucci Arena will have their own stories. But as the Gophers and North Dakota prepare to go their separate ways, the rivalry will shift into uncertain territory.

Next year, the Gophers will join the Big Ten for hockey, while North Dakota moves to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The teams will not play another regular-season series until the 2016-17 season at the earliest, ending a run of 66 consecutive years.

Gophers coach Don Lucia hopes to renew the rivalry, though not on an annual basis. He and Woog think the time off -- and the fact that the teams won't have the WCHA's MacNaughton Cup to fight over anymore -- will diminish the passion.

Others aren't so sure. Gophers assistant coach Grant Potulny, a Grand Forks native who played at the U, has seen the view from both sides of the border. He expects the rivalry will reignite whenever and wherever a puck drops between the two programs, sustained by the perpetual embers of history and tradition.

"Any time we play North Dakota, you can see the change in our guys,'' Potulny said. "They're focused. They're intense. It's a different kind of feeling. If we didn't play for 10 years, and then we scheduled each other, I think we'd be right back at it. It's the Hatfields and McCoys.''

An education

Woog learned of the rivalry as a kid in South St. Paul, then played in it as a Gopher from 1964-66 and coached the Gophers against North Dakota for 14 seasons. "It ebbs and flows, it comes and goes,'' Woog said. "But it's the greatest rivalry in college hockey, in my opinion.''

North Dakota star Danny Kristo, who is from Eden Prairie, became a fan of the green and white in sixth grade. He demonstrated his loyalty by wearing North Dakota gear even in hostile territory; this weekend, he will help close the book on this chapter of the rivalry's history.

"I feel very fortunate to play in the last series,'' said Kristo, the third-leading scorer in the WCHA with 13 goals and 17 assists. "When Minnesota plays North Dakota, you put that jersey on, and ... you know you're going to get the best of both teams every time they play.''

Tickets for the series are listed for as much as $350 on some websites. Social media and fan chat boards have been ablaze with taunts old (Golden Goofers), new (Fighting Whioux, a reference to North Dakota's now-banned Fighting Sioux nickname) and too profane to mention.

The rivalry has been stoked over the years by many factors. There's the nationalist angle, pitting Gophers teams composed mostly of Americans -- and often entirely of Minnesotans -- against North Dakota rosters rich with Canadians. There's a border involved, always a good starting point for a feud. There's the culture clash between metropolis and remote prairie town.

Fierce competition

A long history with many hotly contested, meaningful games is what sent the rivalry over the top.

The Gophers have played 288 games against North Dakota, more than any other school; according to their records, they lead the series by the narrow margin of 144-130-14.

The rivalry often holds implications for national rankings, conference supremacy and postseason success. This weekend, both teams are ranked in the top 10, and they are tied for third place in the WCHA, one point behind co-leaders Denver and Nebraska Omaha.

"That atmosphere, that intensity in the building from players, coaches and fans is what stands out to me," said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, who also played for the school. "The tradition and history will be sustained, I think, even if we don't play each and every year. But I strongly hope that at some point in time, we're able to do that.''

Conference upheaval could make it difficult. Teams play a maximum of 34 games, and the Gophers' Big Ten schedule will account for 20 of those. They also will continue to host the Mariucci Classic and play eight games against in-state rivals Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State and Bemidji State. That leaves four games against nonconference opponents per season.

Lucia said that school policy prohibited the Gophers from scheduling nonconference games against North Dakota as long as it kept its Fighting Sioux nickname in defiance of NCAA rules. While North Dakota continued that battle, he got the opportunity to lock in games against Notre Dame, Boston College and Northeastern in deals that leave no openings in the schedule until 2016-17.

North Dakota has since dropped the nickname. But Lucia doesn't plan to play UND every year.

"I think rivalries, when you're in the same conference, mean more,'' he said. "You're playing for points and spots in the standings. And when you play somebody every couple of years, it's not the same as when you play them four to six times in a given year.''

Given the way both teams are playing, Lucia expects they could meet again this season in the playoffs. That could happen in the coming years, too, in high-stakes games that would add to the lore.

The players are eager to enrich it in this weekend's series, too, hoping to end this chapter of their teams' history in memorable fashion.

"There's always a little extra emotion when we play North Dakota, because of the rivalry,'' Gophers captain Zach Budish said.

"We're only in mid-January, but this is a big weekend.''

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