North Dakota/Minnesota: A Hockey Rivalry Like No Other

Which team do you consider North Dakota’s biggest rival?

I have Minnesota at the top of my list, along with Boston College, Denver, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

And what makes some rivalries so intense? For some of the above-mentioned schools, it’s conference affiliation. Wisconsin joined the WCHA in 1969 and was a part of some of the most intense extra-curricular activities in UND hockey history – the pre-game brawl, the water bottle incident, and the line brawl in Madison.

Denver and UND have been in the same conference since 1951, and the two schools have been battling it out for league titles ever since (DU has 11, North Dakota, 15). Minnesota could make that same claim up until last season, but the Gophers bolted for the Big Ten (along with UW), creating a scheduling void that few wanted to see (but more on that later). For the Pioneers, the Badgers, the Gophers, and the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux, familiarity bred contempt.

But why else? Why are Boston College and Michigan on my list? And why has Denver become such a bitter feud while Wisconsin has cooled a bit? It all boils down to tournament time.

Since 1997, UND has met 18 different teams in NCAA tournament action, and of those eighteen, seven have at one time or another ended North Dakota’s season. The Fighting Sioux avenged a loss to Michigan in 1998 with playoff wins in 2006 and 2007, but the Wolverines took out the most talented North Dakota team in recent memory at the 2011 Frozen Four in St. Paul. Denver has had UND’s number, defeating the Sioux in 2004 and 2005, although the boys from Grand Forks got some revenge in 2011.

Ferris State bounced North Dakota from the 2003 tournament, but last weekend’s double overtime regional final in Cincinnati evened the score. Yale twice ended UND’s season (2010 and 2013), and the 2009 overtime loss to New Hampshire was especially heartbreaking, as North Dakota led that game with three seconds remaining in regulation.

The seven tournament games between Boston College and UND (1999, 2000, 2001, and 2005-2008) are well-documented., with the Eagles holding a commanding 5-2 edge in those contests. North Dakota won its seventh national title with a victory over BC in 2000, and Dave Hakstol earned his only postseason victory over Jerry York in the 2005 East Region final (Worcester, MA).

Other teams UND has defeated in the NCAAs during that same span include Cornell (1997), Colorado College (1997, 2001), Boston University (1997, 2005), Niagara (2000, 2013), Maine (2000), Michigan State (2001), Holy Cross (2004, 2006), Princeton (2008), Renssalaer (2011), and Western Michigan (2012). These rivalries are not as intense as the schools listed above, and it is my opinion that it is because these schools have not ended UND’s season on the biggest stage that they are not regarded as such.

In other words, postseason games against Boston College, Denver, and Michigan seem to generate more interest because there is more postseason history, with victories on both sides of the ledger to keep things interesting. Of the others mentioned, Yale and Ferris State have some chance of becoming bigger rivalries down the road, provided the teams continue to meet in the NCAAs.

Up until 2008, Wisconsin and North Dakota had not met in the national tournament since the 1982 title game (a UND victory). The Green and White downed the Badgers in the 2008 regional final (Madison, WI) and in the opening round of this season’s NCAA tournament.

And that leaves us with Minnesota. The 1979 title game between North Dakota and Minnesota, which Minnesota won 4-3, would set off a 25 year span (1980-2004) during which the two schools would not meet in the NCAA tournament. That’s astounding. During that time, Minnesota advanced to the national tournament 20 times (winning titles in 2002 and 2003), and North Dakota advanced to the national tournament 12 times (winning titles in 1980, 1982, 1987, 1997, and 2000), and yet they never played each other.

North Dakota has somewhat atoned for the 1979 title game loss with NCAA victories over Minnesota in 2005 and 2007. The Gophers returned the favor in 2012, bouncing UND from the national tournament with a 5-2 victory in the West Regional final in St. Paul.

Why, for those 25 years, did the two fan bases continue to circle Sioux/Gopher weekend on their calendars? What was it about these two programs that caused every regular season matchup to feel like a playoff game and every WCHA Final Five tilt to feel like the Super Bowl? And that’s saying nothing about my heart rate during overtime of the 2007 West Regional Final or the 2005 Frozen Four Semifinal.

There are a few schools of thought about why the games between UND and Minnesota are so contentious. The teams recruit many of the same players, and some of that spills over onto the ice. Crowds are at fever pitch before the puck is dropped, and to some extent both teams try to live up to what they think the fans want.

Another way to compare rivalries is to list players and coaches from each team under consideration. In other words, I have no doubt that fans of North Dakota hockey can name head coaches Jerry York (Boston College), Red Berenson (Michigan), and Don Lucia (Minnesota). How many other coaches come to mind? Mike Eaves (Wisconsin)? George Gwozdecky of Denver (before he left/was shown the door)?

Which other coaches come to mind? How about former coaches?

The ability to name coaches from years past is definitely a measure of how long a school has been a bitter rival. Without looking, I could name former Minnesota coaches Doug Woog, Brad Beutow, and Herb Brooks. And I’m certain that Gopher fans can easily remember Dean Blais and Gino Gasparini. The more important the rivalry, the more we pay attention.

Think of all of the goaltenders from years past who have stolen victories or let pucks in from 180 feet: Adam Hauser, Steve DeBus, Alex Kangas, Kellen Briggs, Jeff Frazee, and Kent Patterson. Players who have scored big goals against North Dakota in important games: Brian Bonin, Johnny Pohl, Jordan Leopold, Thomas Vanek, Grant and Ryan Potulny, Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Jacob Cepis, and Erik Haula.

And it’s important to remember that this works both ways. Fan of the Maroon and Gold still remember which two UND players crushed Kevin Wehrs into the same corner of Ralph Engelstad Arena (Matt Frattin and Brad Malone). Or how much it stung when Zach Parise chose North Dakota. The handshake lines, jersey pulls, more handshake lines, and incredible goals become a part of the story, and each game writes a new chapter.

It’s been interesting to hear both head coaches share thoughts on the rivalry this week. Minnesota head coach Don Lucia has been taking the approach that the trip to the Frozen Four should be the headline, not the opponent. But depending on the day or the audience, his comments also speak to how much both sides have invested in the two teams facing off in Philadelphia.

In this College Hockey News article about the rivalry, Lucia is quoted as saying “I almost had a kind of inkling: once North Dakota won, well, I guess we have to win now,” said Lucia, who oversaw a 7-3 opening-round win Saturday against Robert Morris. “You can’t go a year without playing.”

This after the Gophers coach claimed that the rivalry was unhealthy and too heated.

Hakstol has said continuously that the North Dakota-Minnesota matchup is important for both programs and important for the sport of hockey. In this Star Tribune article about the new schedule agreement, the UND coach had this to say: “This is a rivalry that our fans, alumni and team look forward to renewing. It is one of the most heated in all of college sports.”

The two schools are scheduled to resume the rivalry three seasons from now, with North Dakota heading to Mariucci Arena during the 2016-17 season and the Gophers returning the favor the following year. Dates for each series have not been announced.

It’s important for both sides to put aside pride and personal politics and reach a long-term schedule agreement that has each school traveling to the other at least once every four years. It’s good for the fans, it’s good for each program, and it’s good for the sport.

It’s also good for the players. It is my opinion that every four-year player at North Dakota and Minnesota should have the experience of playing in this rivalry, both home and away. So make it simple: keep the rivalry “on” for two seasons (with each school hosting one season and traveling the other), then “off” for two seasons.

And finally, there is some great content available across the vast interweb to keep you entertained until Thursday evening. The thread has some great videos and stories shared by fans on both sides of the rivalry. And Daddy Dump and Chase is counting down his favorite UND/Minnesota hockey memories from now until the puck drops. Both of those are worth a look. And if you’re so inclined, here’s a preview of the UND/Minnesota matchup in the Frozen Four.

What do you think? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Your stories. Your memories of the Sioux/Gopher rivalry. Please leave comments about your favorite games and ones you’d like to forget. It’s your turn. It’s your time. It’s North Dakota and Minnesota, on the ice once again. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

4 thoughts on “North Dakota/Minnesota: A Hockey Rivalry Like No Other”

  1. Love the article!! I heard a great interview with Lucia this week regarding this game and rivalry. I’m not a huge Lucia fan and I was not impressed when he started out by saying he hasn’t seen a lot of North Dakota games this year, but he doesn’t have to because he knows what they are bringing to the table, he meant it to sound complimentary, but I thought it was rude and ridiculous, every team is different every year. He redeemed himself with the part where he said that he thought that this was going to be a great game because these teams are so similar, no big stars, all about teamwork and different players and their few veterans stepping up in each game. Both teams seem to know how to get it done when the pressure is on, with their detriment being that they don’t always perform when it’s not. As a huge Gopher fan and a UND season ticket holder I, unlike Lucia, have seen both teams play a lot this year and totally agree. That being said, I love Adam Wilcox, SKIUMAH .

  2. Serves Lucia right for avoiding the Nodaks till the 2016-17 season…hope he’s having nightmares about the upcoming game….

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