There’s an extremely strong, if not iron-clad, argument to be made that the Gophers have the nation’s premier women’s hockey program. Those seven national championship banners hanging at Ridder Arena – two more titles than any other program can claim – all but shut down any point to the contrary.

During Sunday’s 2 p.m. game against St. Cloud State, the Gophers team that started it all – the 1999-2000 squad – will be honored as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the program’s first national championship. That season, Minnesota won the last American Women’s College Hockey Alliance title, a year before the NCAA held its first women’s tournament.

“It brings back a lot of great memories,’’ said Laura Halldorson, who coached the Gophers from their inception as a varsity program in 1997 through 2006-07. “That was a very fun season.’’

That fun season ended in Boston with the Gophers first defeating Minnesota Duluth 3-2 in the semifinals, then Brown 4-2 in the final to cap a 32-6-1 season. How they got there, however, wasn’t easy. Halldorson guided her team through some ups and downs, soul-searching moments and tense times, especially in the postseason.

Minnesota got off to a so-so start in 1999-2000, with a 4-2 record after series splits at Providence and Northeastern in late October. That prompted Halldorson to push some buttons. She wasn’t pleased with the conditioning of her team when it reported to camp, so 7 a.m. swimming pool workouts followed. And when the team arrived home late Sunday night after the Providence series, she held a team meeting.

“I felt that we weren’t playing the way we were capable of playing,’’ Halldorson said. She instructed her players to show up to the next practice with their own jerseys, not ones supplied by the team.

“At practice, they looked all rag-tag with these different jerseys,’’ Halldorson remembered. “We skated them, and when we determined the point was made, we had them go in and put their gold jerseys on. They came out, and I said, ‘OK, do we look like a team?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘OK, let’s play like a team.’ ’’

Enter a rival

The Gophers responded with a 6-1 surge in November, but early December brought their first meeting with a new and talented rival – Minnesota Duluth.

The Bulldogs were in their first year as a program under coach Shannon Miller, who guided Canada to the 1997 world championship and the silver medal in the 1998 Winter Olympics. With a roster heavy on international experience, the Bulldogs quickly established themselves as a power. They scored 5-4 and 1-0 victories over the Gophers at Mariucci Arena in early December.

“The Gopher-Bulldog rivalry was the fiercest in women’s college hockey at the time,’’ said Tracy (Engstrom) Cassano, a sophomore forward that season. “… Every game was kind of a knock-down, drag-out type of game.’’

The Gophers reeled off 13 straight wins, then got a victory and a tie in the February series at Duluth’s Pioneer Hall. “It was packed, and it was crazy,’’ Halldorson aid. “For us that was huge. We gained confidence.’’

Minnesota Duluth, however, struck back in the WCHA final, beating the Gophers 2-0 at Bloomington Ice Garden and leaving them on the AWCHA tournament bubble. After that loss, Halldorson went to her motivational arsenal again.

“The only thing I really contributed was, ‘Remember how we feel right now. We do not want to feel this way again. Next time we’re in a game like this, let’s make sure we do what we need to do so we don’t feel this way again,’ ’’ she said.

On to nationals

Turns out, Halldorson’s words would come in handy in the Gophers’ next game. Minnesota got into the four-team AWCHA tournament as an at-large selection and faced Minnesota Duluth in the semifinals.

The Bulldogs led 2-0 early in the second period. “It was a little bit like, ‘Uh-oh. Here we go again,’ ’’ Halldorson said. Cassano felt differently. “There was never a negative vibe or a letdown or anyone hanging their heads,’’ she said. “We just rallied together, and it felt like a group of sisters out there willing to lay it all on the line for each other.’’

Nadine Muzerall, who scored 49 goals for the Gophers that season, trimmed the lead to 2-1 at 10:50 of the second. “It was a real momentum-changer,’’ Cassano said. “… We were working hard all night and just couldn’t get anything past [goalie] Tuula Puputti.’’

Muzerall, now the Ohio State women’s coach, struck again to tie it 2-2 at 10:59 of the third, with Cassano and Courtney Kennedy assisting on the power-play goal. Then Cassano put the Gophers ahead for good at 13:15, her shot through Ronda Curtin’s screen beating Puputti on a power play.

There still was 6:45 of regulation time left hold off the hard-charging Bulldogs. “A clock never ticked down so slowly in my life,’’ Cassano said. “It felt like an eternity.’’

With 3:46 left, Halldorson called timeout to calm her team. And during that break, she took them back to that devastating feeling after the WCHA title game loss.

“That’s when I pulled out the, ‘Hey, remember the last time we played these guys and how we felt afterwards? We are not letting that happen today. We are not going to feel that way,’ ’’ she said. “I just saw these little eyes, and they were so determined.’’

Said Cassano, “It still gives me shivers to this day.’’

Behind 34 saves by goalie Erica Killewald, the tournament MVP, the Gophers hung on for the 3-2 win, then a day later would dispatch Brown 4-2 in the championship game after they trailed 1-0.

Halldorson also guided the Gophers to NCAA championships in 2004 and ’05, but nothing tops that breakthrough win over Minnesota Duluth.

“It’s my favorite game of all time,’’ she said. “It was our championship.’’

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