MANKATO – The main purpose for a journey to the prairie on Saturday was to chronicle the NCAA Division II football quarterfinal, featuring No. 1-rated Minnesota State Mankato and No. 2 Minnesota Duluth.

This was a reminder that, even as a number of storied programs have left this division to play second-tier Division I in the FCS, there are a good number of outstanding athletes playing at the top level of Division II.

There were passes thrown and catches made and hits delivered among the Mavericks and Bulldogs that would’ve been as effective at the higher levels of college football.

The trip also gave me a chance to actually attend an MSU Mankato hockey game in its home arena, the Verizon Wireless Center, for the first time.

(Note: It also gave me a chance to stop at Pagliai’s Pizza a few blocks away in downtown Mankato, but that’s another story).

Two years later, it remains astounding to me that the greedy sons of a gun from the Big Ten were willing to blow up the grand little sports community of college hockey – astounding because of hockey’s unimportance in the big picture for the Big Ten and its TV network.

Commissioner Jim Delany and his TV advisers clearly have no conscience. No matter the circumstance, greed always wins, and the in-person customers always lose.

Example A is the poor suckers who still pay premium prices to watch Gophers basketball in Williams Arena. First, they are stuck with a half-dozen December home games against nobodies and with a ticket price value of zero, and then the great tradition of Saturday afternoon conference games in the Barn has been lost.

You’re more likely to see a 5 p.m. tipoff on Sunday than a 2 p.m. tipoff on Saturday. Pathetic, but that’s Delany and his TV network.

The six-team Big Ten Conference is a joke. Ask any regular at Mariucci Arena about the Big Ten and 90 percent will say, “I hate it.’’

The few defenders will say, “If and when they add a couple more teams, it will be better.’’

No it won’t. My grandkids aren’t going to live long enough to care about the Gophers playing Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois and Nebraska in hockey. There’s nothing there; never will be.

Did the Gophers even bother to skate around with the trophy after winning the first full-season Big Ten title last March?

The entire drama of U of M hockey is now dropping the puck in October and waiting for the regional to which the Gophers are assigned in late March, with nothing but yawns in between.

Even playing North Dakota, UMD and St. Cloud State here and there means 20 percent of what it used to: no McNaughton Cup implications, no playoff series, no Final Five showdowns, just a few non-conference games.

I was searching for an answer to this question when dropping in on MSU Mankato’s game against Alaska (Fairbanks) on Saturday:

Is it more exciting for prairie hockey fans to see the Mavericks playing for first place in the new WCHA? Or did they feel better served in the old WCHA where reaching the first division was a feat, but Minnesota, North Dakota, UMD, St. Cloud, Denver and Wisconsin would generally dot the home schedule?

(Another note: Apologies for the Wisconsin reference. We’re going back to a time with Badgers hockey when getting swept at home by Penn State would’ve been considered a surprise).

Mike Hastings, a long-time USHL coach and a short-term assistant for Don Lucia at Minnesota, was hired as MSU’s third coach in April 2012. The Mavericks finished fifth in the WCHA in his first season and reached the NCAA tournament for the second time since moving up to Division I in 1996.

Last year, the WCHA became a 10-team mix of teams left as orphans from the breakup of the former WCHA and the CCHA (now defunct). The Mavericks finished second to Ferris State in the regular season and won the Final Five playoff for the automatic bid to the NCAA.

MSU Mankato came into this season as the WCHA favorites, and so far has made that stand up. The Mavericks were 9-1 in the conference, 11-3 overall and rated No. 2 in the country heading into the weekend series with Alaska.

The Nanooks surprised them with a 5-4 victory that ended MSU’s six-game winning streak on Friday night. On Saturday, the crowd was announced at 4,077 inside the 4,800-seat arena.

There’s hockey in Mankato now, at the two public high schools, with a youth program, but it’s still southern Minnesota – an area without a hockey heritage. A lot of 50- and 60-year-olds have had to make themselves Mavericks’ hockey followers with no background in the sport.

I know. I grew up even farther south in Minnesota.

By all accounts, the Mankato fans had no trouble being frenzied when the Gophers or the Former Sioux came to town, because these were the blue bloods … the programs that looked down on the Mankatos of the hockey world.

But the Nanooks? Not so much.

There were cheers when the Mavs came close or scored, and boos when they were called for penalties, but the 5-2 victory for the home team was more appreciated than a cause for frenzied celebration.

MSU Mankato is now 12-4 overall and has its last non-conference series vs. Princeton this weekend. Then, there’s a three-week break, before the WCHA schedule resumes with a trip to Northern Michigan on New Year’s weekend.

The Mavericks are ranked No. 3 in the USCHO ratings, and stand No. 1 in the more-important Pairwise Ratings for the NCAA tournament.

That’s fun, but I think Mankato misses the real WCHA, just as do the occupants (players and fans) of Mariucci Arena.

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