LAS VEGAS – Cody Kendera and Carlye Veer were roaming the casino at The Orleans, killing time, waiting for their room to be ready so they could check in Friday.
The maroon-clad couple were in the distinct minority. Everywhere you looked, green-and-black-clad hockey fans had taken over. In the bars. In the restaurants. At the slot machines.
But Kendera and Veer weren’t deterred. They and a handful of other Minnesota fans have made the trek to Las Vegas, where the fifth-ranked Gophers will face No. 17 North Dakota in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game on Saturday night.
The event was announced two years ago and quickly sold out The Orleans Arena’s 7,000 seats. Kendera and Veer, who are from Bloomington and are U graduates as well as Gophers season ticket holders, shelled out $250 apiece to get in the building.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Kendera said. “We went to the Ralph [Ralph Engelstad Arena] last year and they are the worst fans in hockey. They throw beer on you. They spit at you. They curse and abuse you.
“But we’re just going to win the game and shut up 7,000 North Dakota fans.”
Veer, who grew up in North Dakota and was the only graduate from her high school class to leave the state for college, said she expects to catch some flak Saturday.
“I’m used to the hate,” she said. “But to have the game here [in Las Vegas] is so cool.”
The few Minnesota fans who made the trip also had an opportunity to see one of their own in an NHL game. The Vegas Golden Knights were home Friday night against Tampa Bay at T-Mobile Arena, and it was a chance to watch center Erik Haula, who played for the Gophers from 2010 to 2013. He vividly remembers the rivalry with North Dakota.
“We didn’t care much for each other,” Haula said. “Tensions were always high when we played North Dakota. It was a lot like a playoff game.
“I remember bench-clearing brawls. Fans taking frozen bottles and throwing them on the ice at us. You knew there would be some crazy things going on. There was always a lot of hate.”
The current Gophers said they feel the same kind of animosity toward North Dakota.
“The history stays pretty fresh,” co-captain Brent Gates Jr. said. “The guys who played before us come back during the summer and they talk about the rivalry and how important it is. It definitely stays with you.”
“It’s going to be pretty cool playing them here [in Las Vegas],” said Tyler Sheehy, the Gophers’ other co-captain and a senior forward like Gates. “The game’s been sold out for a while. There’s going to be some good back-and-forth between the fans. We’re looking forward to it.”
Las Vegas doesn’t have the hockey history of Minnesota. Or North Dakota. However, the Golden Knights have quickly accelerated the learning curve for the residents with their success.
“It’s great to have the [Gophers-UND] game here,” said Haula, who plans to attend because the Knights have Saturday off. “It’s another way to grow the sport in Vegas and it’s going to be a lot of fun for the fans from both schools.”
Even the players hope to enjoy their stay in the desert. The team is staying at The Orleans and Motzko said there’s no need to place extra restrictions on the team. Especially given their proximity to the Strip (The Orleans is 2.2 miles away).
“These guys understand the importance of a game like this,” he said. “It’s great when you can take a road trip like this early in the season. It’s great for team camaraderie and team building.
“We have great leadership and it’s going to be a good test for us. It’s [North Dakota’s] game. It’s going to be a very green crowd. We got like 50 tickets. But it will be a great atmosphere, and when you can bring college hockey to new markets, it’s great.”
For Kendera and Veer, the plan is to take full advantage of the trip. They took a helicopter ride over the Las Vegas Strip on Friday night. And the engaged couple said if the Gophers pull out a victory Saturday, they might do something else very Vegas-like.
“We might get married here,” Veer said.