The Gophers open Big Ten hockey play this weekend, and if those words still make the fan base yawn or cringe, the conference hopes this season will change that.
The Big Ten is a new-look league, with a new team (Notre Dame), three new coaches, a new schedule and a new playoff format.
Will there be a new champion? Minnesota has won the first four conference titles. And, win or lose, will Gophers fans ever embrace the Big Ten?
Gophers coach Don Lucia certainly says it’s time, heading into Friday night’s game against fast-rising Penn State at the newly renamed 3M Arena at Mariucci.
“When you look at the games we’ve had, I mean, sometimes you can just complain to complain,” Lucia said. “I can go back and say the way things were on the Iron Range in the ’70s vs. the way they are now — it’s a little different, but it’s the way things are.”
Meanwhile, the Gophers continue hemorrhaging season-ticket holders. Since Big Ten hockey started, Minnesota’s season-ticket base (not counting students) has declined from 7,271 in Year 1, to 5,941 last season, to 5,511 this season.
But with another high-ceiling team of his own, Lucia hopes the rest of the new Big Ten is strong enough — and compelling enough — to reverse the trend.
The Big Ten now has seven teams, and four of them made last season’s 16-team NCAA tournament. Notre Dame reached the Frozen Four. Penn State made the quarterfinals. Ohio State and the Gophers both got bounced in the first round.
“Wisconsin just missed out [on an NCAA bid],” Lucia said. “Michigan State won a national title 10 years ago. Michigan played for one [in 2011], so they’ll cycle back, and it’s just going to become, I believe, a real bear of a league.”
To replace iconic coach Red Berenson, Michigan hired Mel Pearson, who led Michigan Tech to two NCAA appearances in six years. Michigan State hired Danton Cole from the U.S. national team development program. Pearson and Cole gave those Big Ten programs immediate recruiting boosts, much as Tony Granato’s hire at Wisconsin did one year earlier.
Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson is the other Big Ten coaching newcomer, but he’s no newbie, having led the Fighting Irish to three Frozen Fours in 12 years. The Notre Dame team that knocked the Gophers from the NCAA tournament last season included seven Minnesota natives.
In this year’s preseason poll, Big Ten coaches picked the Gophers to finish first, and Notre Dame to finish second.
“I didn’t pick us second,” said Jackson, whose team lost standouts Cal Petersen and Anders Bjork to the NHL. “The conference is going to be extremely tight and extremely tough. It’s going to be like playing in Hockey East without the bottom five teams.”
With Notre Dame in the Big Ten fold, the Gophers will play 24 conference games, compared to 20 in recent years. Before this season, the Gophers went four years without playing a Big Ten series before Thanksgiving.
Then there’s the Big Ten tournament, which was such a dud, attendance-wise, the league adopted a three-week, on-campus format. The regular-season champion will get a bye the first weekend (March 2-4), while the other six teams play best-of-three series.
The top remaining seeds will host one-game semifinals the next weekend, followed by the one-game clash for the Big Ten title March 17.
“Rivalries can happen a number of ways, but I think the quickest way that happens is when you have great games in the playoffs,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said.
Penn State created two such memories last season, defeating Minnesota and then Wisconsin in double overtime to win the Big Ten tournament title. Trouble was, the announced attendance for those games at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena was 2,791 and 5,601.
In only its fifth Division-I season, the Penn State program came of age, and hardly anyone saw it.
The anti-Big Ten hockey crowd might call that karma. Had billionaire Terrence Pegula not gifted Penn State $100 million to build an arena, this whole Big Ten hockey experiment might not have started, and the Gophers might still be in the WCHA, bouncing between all those old rivalries.
Now, Penn State and Big Ten hockey are here to stay. And whether Gophers fans like it or not, the Nittany Lions are a growing obstacle Minnesota must contend with to win its first NCAA title since 2003.
“I just think as we continue to move forward that you start to embrace the new,” Lucia said, “and forget about the old.”