Which team do you consider North Dakota’s biggest rival?
I have Minnesota at the top of my list, along with Boston College, Boston University, Denver, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Combined, North Dakota and these six rivals have won 46 national titles, while all of the other college hockey teams in existence have won just 27.
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 12, North Dakota, 19). Minnesota could make that same claim until 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, Boston University, 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 23 different teams in NCAA tournament action, and of those twenty-three, ten 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, 2007, and 2016, but the Wolverines took out one of the most talented North Dakota teams in recent memory at the 2011 Frozen Four in St. Paul. Denver had UND’s number at one point, defeating the Sioux in 2004 and 2005, although the boys from Grand Forks got some revenge in 2011 and again on their 2016 championship run.
Ferris State bounced North Dakota from the 2003 tournament, but the 2014 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. UND took out Boston University in the 1997 national title game and again in the 2005 tournament, but the Terriers bested UND in the 2015 Frozen Four semis and outlasted North Dakota in the 2017 West Regional (Fargo, ND).
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).
And last season, conference foe Minnesota Duluth outlasted North Dakota in a five-overtime thriller with a Frozen Four appearance on the line.
Other teams UND has defeated in the NCAAs during that same span include Cornell (1997), Colorado College (1997, 2001), Niagara (2000, 2013), Maine (2000), Michigan State (2001), Holy Cross (2004, 2006), Princeton (2008), Renssalaer (2011), Western Michigan (2012), Northeastern (2016), St. Cloud State (2015), Quinnipiac (2015, 2016), and American International (2021). 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, Boston University, 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. If UND were to meet a conference foe such as Minnesota Duluth (again) or St. Cloud State (for the first time) on the national stage, those games would generate quite a bit of interest as well.
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 the 2014 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 twice in a three-year span, bouncing UND from the 2012 national tournament with a 5-2 victory in the West Regional final in St. Paul and again with less than one second remaining in the 2014 national semifinal.
With four NCAA tournament tilts since 2005, the rivalry has certainly gone to a new level. But the question remains: 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) and Red Berenson (Michigan). 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?
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, Herb Brooks, and Don Lucia. And I’m certain that Gopher fans can easily remember Dean Blais, Gino Gasparini, and Dave Hakstol. 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, Kent Patterson, and Adam Wilcox. 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, Erik Haula, and Justin Holl.
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, incredible goals, and crucial timeouts become a part of the story, and each game writes a new chapter.
After resuming the rivalry in Las Vegas in 2018 (a 3-1 North Dakota victory), the two schools continued the rivalry the following season over Thanksgiving weekend at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. The two games felt like a home series for UND, and the Fighting Hawks gave their fans much to be thankful for with a sweep of the Gophers (8-3, 3-2). #6/#5 North Dakota (9-4-0, 5-1-0 NCHC) will host #11/#12 Minnesota (8-6-0, 5-3-0 Big Ten) for a pair of games at Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend, and the teams are also scheduled to meet in non-conference action in each of the next two seasons (through 2022-23).
This schedule agreement is 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.
Over the years, I have asked the Twitterverse about this rivalry; here are some of the responses:
2012 Final Five Semifinal UND 6 – Minnesota 3. I was 11 years old, but I vividly remember Corban Knight scoring the 5th goal on the PP and hearing my Grandma yell from the other room “They scored again?!?!?”
The Handshake Game Finley and Wheeler.
Wehrs getting blown up, both times! Also, Bina scoring from 185 feet away.
I remember a series back in ‘96 when UND had cancelled classes on Friday due to the extreme cold. Goofs came in with a 19-game unbeaten streak. The Sioux crowd was raucous. Students started chanting, “Warm up DeBus!” when MN’s starting goalie was getting throttled. UND won 8-2.
The ‘timeout’ game.
I’ve got UND winning Friday’s opener by a final score of 4-2, with the Gophers managing a 3-3 tie in Saturday’s rematch. 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 again. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
As always, thank you for reading. I welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions. Follow me on Twitter (@DBergerHockey) for more information and insight. Here’s to hockey!