Saturday and Sunday will serve as an old-home weekend of sorts at 3M Arena at Mariucci, where four of Minnesota's five Division I men's hockey teams will gather for the Mariucci Classic.
The Gophers, Bemidji State, Minnesota State Mankato and St. Cloud State will compete for in-state bragging rights in a regular-season tournament for the first time since the North Star College Cup's four-year run ended in January 2017. And the coaches involved embrace the reunion.
"For all of us, they're important games," said the Gophers' Bob Motzko, whose team faces Bemidji State at 7 p.m. Saturday. "Let's just get it going."
Added Minnesota State Mankato coach Mike Hastings, whose No. 2-ranked Mavericks take on St. Cloud State at 4 p.m. Saturday: "It's great for the State of Hockey. It's a great idea. I don't see any negatives to it."
After a two-year hiatus, the Mariucci Classic returns with an all-Minnesota flavor. The format won't be like this every year — schedules meshed well among the four schools this time — but it's a welcome flashback to the WCHA's glory days when these four teams, plus Minnesota Duluth, played conference games. That was before college hockey's conference upheaval, which began with the 2013-14 season, divvied Minnesota's five teams among three leagues.
"We've got a close coaching fraternity in Division I hockey, but it's even closer in the state of Minnesota," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said. "There's so much respect for each other and each other's program."
St. Cloud State assistant Mike Gibbons, who is helping lead the Huskies while Brett Larson coaches at the World Junior Championship, would like to see an all-Minnesota tournament every year.
"One thing about college hockey in Minnesota right now — there's just a ton of great teams," Gibbons said. "… It was a mistake when they decided to not have the [North Star] Cup, because it was great for all the teams."
Gibbons will see one of those great teams when his Huskies (5-7-4) play MSU Mankato (15-2-1), which had a six-week run atop the U.S. College Hockey Online poll before splitting a mid-December series at Northern Michigan. The Mavericks are a veteran group that has posted a 76-20-4 mark since the start of the 2017-18 season, and Gibbons calls them the best team in the country. St. Cloud State has 16 freshmen or sophomores, while Minnesota State Mankato counters with 15 upperclassmen.
"They're not only men, but old men and physical men, but they're also talented," Gibbons said. "… They're the team this year, and that's the exciting challenge for us."
In Saturday's second game, the young, rebuilding Gophers will try to find some traction after a 5-9-4 first half, facing Bemidji State (8-5-3), which has won seven of its past 10 games. The Beavers rank in the nation's top 11 in both scoring and defense, and their penalty kill at 94% is the nation's best, snuffing 47 of 50 opponent chances.
"We've got a pretty good hockey team," Serratore said. "… It's a nice recipe for success, and you want to keep it going."
Motzko is just trying to find sustained success for his team. He spent much of the three-week break assessing how the Gophers can better finish games.
"We've just got to get through Bemidji," said Motzko, whose team will play in Sunday's 7 p.m. game regardless of Saturday's outcome. "We've got our hands full in the first game, then we'll worry about the next one.''