In his first game ever against North Dakota last January in Grand Forks, then-freshman Nick Bjugstad of the Gophers found himself underneath senior Brad Malone at the end of the second period. He was being choked by the Sioux player.
"I really didn't expect that," Bjugstad said. "I wasn't really ready for it."
But as those who have seen and experienced the skill, intensity and volatility of the series would say: Welcome to the rivalry. The 283rd and 284th meetings in a border battle dating back to 1930 will be played Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena. Expect dramatic goals, physical play and sellout crowds. Only standing-room tickets remain.
But a big question looms: What will become of eight-plus decades of tradition?
The Gophers will visit North Dakota in January. Next season the Fighting Sioux are expected to make one last visit to Mariucci for a WCHA series. Starting in 2013-14 season, the Gophers will be in the Big Ten Conference and North Dakota in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. This weekend's series is their first meeting since the formation of the Big Ten Conference was announced in March and the NCHC in July.
"This is the best week of the year," said Gophers defenseman Seth Helgeson, who helped pull Malone off Bjugstad in last year's melee. "It's our rival, North Dakota."
That status will be harder to sustain in the future.
"I think you will see us continue to play," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "Is it going to be every year? That might be difficult to do."
There are three stumbling blocks, Lucia said, to scheduling nonconference series with North Dakota annually:
• The NCHC has eight teams and it could play as many as 28 conference games, leaving North Dakota with only six nonconference games.
• The Gophers play 20 home games every season -- and any nonconference agreement would be for a home-and-home series over two seasons, meaning the Gophers would have to travel for one of them.
• The Fighting Sioux have to change their nickname. The University of Minnesota has a rule its athletic teams can't play teams outside their conference who have American Indian nicknames deemed offensive. All signs pointed to the North Dakota Legislature repealing a law it passed earlier this year which mandated UND keep the name. But this week the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe and nickname supporters with the Standing Rock Tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court against the NCAA, saying its efforts to force North Dakota to change its nickname violate the tribes' constitutional and religious rights.
Must keep series going
Doug Woog, Lucia's predecessor, said the series has to continue.
"There is no reason not to play. You can't give me one," Woog said.
Lucia said the rivalry really amped up in the late 1970s after the Gophers beat UND in the NCAA title game.
"Then North Dakota got really good. When both teams are really good and you are playing each other at the end of the year" a rivalry builds, he said.
The Sioux have won seven NCAA titles and 15 WCHA regular-season titles, while the Gophers have five NCAA championships and 12 conference crowns.
"It has been a dandy [rivalry]," former Sioux coach Gino Gasparini said. "In the earlier days, North Dakota was a small institution and basically it is something that just evolved between two very successful programs with NCAA and WCHA titles in their pockets. Through the years, it grew bigger and bigger."
Woog said the Sioux used to recruit primarily Canadians while he recruited only in Minnesota, so Gophers fans used to infuriate their counterparts with "USA" chants.
Ben Hankinson, a Gophers forward from 1988-91, remembers the team bus arriving at the old Ralph Engelstad Arena. UND students, already in line for seats, were there to "welcome" them.
"It was great," he said. "I used to go out on the bench to tape my stick before the game, and they would scream over the glass at me."
As a senior he was involved in a scrum in front of one of the nets. After some words, he and Dave Hakstol -- now UND's coach -- skated to center ice and started fighting. Both team captains were thrown out of the game.
"We were so excited we didn't take our helmets off," Hankinson said. "We pounded each other's face masks and the referees let us go."
Gophers assistant coach Grant Potulny grew up in Grand Forks, but he and his brother Ryan played for the Gophers. The North Dakota game he remembers best is the Gophers' 5-4 victory over the Sioux in the 2004 Final Five final. "I had the [game]-winner," Potulny said. "That was fun. Superstars were being superstars that game and I found a way to sneak one in."
Sometimes the offbeat makes an impression, too.
Lucia and Helgeson both fondly recall defenseman Keith Ballard pulling the jersey over the head of a Sioux player on the ice, then scoring an overtime goal as the Gophers beat North Dakota in the first round of the 2002 WCHA playoffs.
The Gophers are only 3-6-2 against the Sioux the past three seasons, but that's partly because nine of those 11 games were at the Ralph. Minnesota wants to take advantage of these two games; after all, who knows how many there will be against UND in future years?
"When you play up there, it's crazy. The fans really don't like you and give it to you," Bjugstad said. "It will be nice having everyone cheering on our side, and we will hopefully get them going."