Willie Swanson kicks off the start of each Huskies hockey series the same way: The morning of the first game, he hoists up a red and black St. Cloud State flag in his front yard and lets it fly through the weekend.
But during playoffs, the flag stays up until the Huskies lose. This year, it's been up since March 10 — the first day of the NCHC tournament, which the Huskies won on Saturday — and Swanson, of St. Cloud, hopes to keep the flag flying through April 8 when the top teams in the nation compete in the NCAA championship game.
"Can't jinx tradition," Swanson, 38, said Wednesday.
Although he's a diehard fan, Swanson has never watched SCSU play in the regional NCAA tournament in person — until this year when the stars aligned for him and other Minnesota hockey fans. Not only are the games being played in nearby Fargo, there are more secondhand tickets available for the sold-out games.
"A lot of [University of North Dakota] fans bought tickets under the assumption that UND was going to make the tournament but they didn't quite have the year they were hoping for. I had plenty of friends that had tickets I could take off their hands," said Mike Vatnsdal, 39, of East Grand Forks, a diehard Gophers fan.
St. Cloud State will face Minnesota State Mankato at 4 p.m. Thursday, and the Gophers will play Canisius at 8 p.m. at Scheels Arena. The winners play Saturday for a trip to the Frozen Four.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said he's excited for the impending invasion of Minnesota fans into the city, which he calls "a hotbed for hockey."
"We just love it when something like this comes into town. And the beauty of this particular [tournament] is other than one team from Buffalo, New York, it's all Minnesota teams," he said. "With UND out of it, then you want to have the next best thing."
Kali Mork, director of sports for the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau, has spent the past week coordinating with hotels and businesses to prep for the tournament.
"Sports is big business. It brings in a lot of dollars," Mork said. "Our hoteliers and our restaurants and attractions and shopping areas definitely embrace the sports world and all the people that come with it. In 2022, the sports that our office works with — the events in general — brought in over $31 million in visitor spending."
While many businesses are used to the extra chaos when big concerts or sporting events come to town, there's something unique about the frenetic energy that comes with hockey fans, said Myckul Smith, assistant general manager at Bar Down, a hockey-themed bar and restaurant in Fargo.
"This place definitely gets loud — gets rowdy. I love working here," he said.
St. Cloud's last two regional tournament games — in Allentown, Pa. last year and Albany, N.Y. in 2021 — were sparsely attended by fans. This year should be different.
"Without a local team there, the atmosphere is usually pretty dead," said Bismarck resident Paul Merkens, a St. Cloud State alum who has traveled to see the Huskies in numerous tournaments over the past two decades. He'll also be in the stands this weekend. "But with the three Minnesota teams there this weekend — in addition to the UND fans who will just go anyways — I think it will be pretty electric."
Swanson and Vatnsdal grew up in Roseau together and now host a hockey-themed podcast called "Grease in the Crease" with a couple other childhood buddies.
Vatnsdal's freshman year at the U in 2003 was the last time the Gophers won the NCAA title in hockey.
"Of course, that set the stage for the rest of the disappointing years up until currently," he said. "But it's fun watching the resurgence of the Gophers getting all the way to the top and being able to watch unbelievable hockey every week, too, with the team that [Gophers coach Bob] Motzko has been able to put together."
If the Gophers reach Saturday's final, they'll play a familiar foe. This season, the Gophers split both series with Minnesota State Mankato and SCSU in October and January, respectively. The last time the Huskies played the Mavericks in October, SCSU swept Mankato 3-2 and 4-3.
"St. Cloud and Mankato are in-state rivals. And the Gophers are everybody's rival in Minnesota," said Swanson, who added he's cheering for the U only on Thursday because he wants to experience a Huskies/Gophers showdown on Saturday.
"Saturday will be the ultimate test of our friendship," he said with a laugh.