For North Dakota, Minnesota, WCHA Series Ends, But Passions Will Not
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
For how much hype and hoopla there was last weekend surrounding the final WCHA regular season series between Minnesota and North Dakota, it was going to be difficult for anything on the ice to live up to the expectations. Years of success and history between the two teams have created moments that live will live on eternally.
So in a way it’s kind of fitting that even though both sides had chances to create a lasting moment, the final WCHA regular season game between Minnesota and North Dakota ended without one. The Gophers came back from a two-goal deficit with less than 10 minutes to play to blow the roof off of Mariucci Arena. UND, meanwhile, hit the post on two separate shots in overtime as the game Saturday ended in a 4-4 tie.
All of a sudden, that was it – the rivalry was over in its current form. Both teams left everything on the ice for 65 minutes, shook hands without incident and departed one last time without bragging rights. If this was a movie, players from both teams would all of a sudden be friends who avenge the other’s death at the hands of the next big thing. They’d go their separate ways and be better for the experience.
But this isn’t a movie. For the players on both Minnesota and North Dakota, the rivalry between the two teams will be tough to see die.
“(Minnesota) is a bitter rival. Let’s be honest, they don’t like us and we definitely don’t like them,” said North Dakota captain Andrew MacWilliam.
That sentiment was echoed throughout the weekend by players on both sides. The two schools’ differences run across the landscape of college hockey — urban or rural, Olympic or NHL-sized rink, Minnesota or North Dakota — and when you’ve chosen one side or another, that’s it. You’ve chosen your family and it’s either Gopher or Sioux. There isn’t any more love lost between the teams from neighboring states because decades of hatred have wiped all traces to begin with.
It’s like the Hatfield-McCoy feud of college hockey only without the killing.
Minnesota junior Erik Haula, who looked at both schools before settling on the Gophers, did not experience the rivalry firsthand as a child growing up in Pori, Finland. Despite being about as far away from the Upper Midwest as possible, Haula has fully embraced it in his three years in Dinkytown and nothing was going to stop him from playing in it.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said following Friday’s 5-1 final, “I’ve never felt better after this win.”
Although Erik currently leads Minnesota with 31 points, the forward was a game-time decision for this weekend. Haula had missed the previous three games with an upper body injury that was initially slated to have him out a month. Instead, he was hopeful to come back early with these games in mind, practicing three of the four times in the week leading up to it, and playing on the wing rather than center in order to not take faceoffs.
Haula was not 100 percent by any stretch, but that didn’t matter. There was no doubt in his mind that he would play in the final Minnesota-North Dakota WCHA regular season series.
“Playing in this series, I really wanted to. It’s a huge series not only for us but the whole stadium,” said Haula, who scored his 100th career point Friday night. “I knew it was going to be a big crowd so I really wanted to play.”
He wasn’t alone. Even players like Gopher freshman goalie Adam Wilcox, making his first start against UND, had to get over who their opponent was before trying to treat it like a regular game.
“It was weird. Growing up and seeing them across the border you’re always kind of in shock for the first couple of minutes with them,” Wilcox said.
“Last weekend (against Alaska-Anchorage), those games you gotta get points in but these games the emotions come out in the crowd here and everything,” he later added. “These are the games I love and these are the games I love to play.”
Despite that, there were still two games that had an impact in the WCHA standings. North Dakota and the Gophers each entered the series one point out of first place with identical 8-3-3 conference records. Taking four points against a top-tier opponent would be a fair measuring stick for where the two top-six Pairwise teams were so far in the season.
Minnesota made a statement in the big picture by taking three points to finish the weekend tied for first, however, that was second in the minds of the players. It was hard to look ahead in the midst of North Dakota-Minnesota.
It’s a rivalry that, as North Dakota senior forward Corban Knight explains, doesn’t need much of an explanation because the play on the ice shows it.
“There’s not a lot of love out there between the two teams,” said Knight, who extended his point streak to 19 games with a goal and an assist this weekend. “Right from the get-go I think guys really started showing that hatred out there and you saw that throughout the 60 minutes.”
There have been times this series' inherent animosities has devolved into unacceptable behavior, both on the ice, and in the stands. Some even believe that's a reason why Minnesota coach Don Lucia has declined to schedule North Dakota in the coming years, when the teams split ways into separate conferences for the first time.
But all passions were kept inside the confines of hockey and competition, by and large, on this weekend. That allowed Knight and the rest of North Dakota’s seniors to focus on one more chance to do something they had never done. They have reached Frozen Fours and won three straight Broadmoor Trophies while never losing a WCHA Final Five game, but in two previous trips to Mariucci Arena they were 0-3-1 and without a win against the Gophers.
That appeared for most of Saturday’s game to finally be changing. UND took an early lead and were up by two in the third period; giving the visible minority of North Dakota fans enough confidence to partake in dueling “Let’s Go Gophers/Let’s Go Sioux” chants. It wasn’t to be, though, as a goal by Wausau, Wis., native Nate Condon with 2:58 remaining in regulation took away North Dakota's chance.
“It stings,” said North Dakota redshirt freshman Rocco Grimaldi, who scored his first collegiate goal in Mariucci Arena last year, following Saturday’s game. “Obviously we didn’t want a split but that’s all we could coming into tonight. We needed to get the split and we didn’t get it.”
Condon, meanwhile, had one of his best weekends in his college career. The junior scored five points in two games, including a pair of goals, yet the only thing that made it better was who it was up against.
“It’s good … especially since it’s against North Dakota,” he said. “If I can score that against them every time it would make my year.”
Unfortunately for Condon, Grimaldi and every other player wearing maroon and gold or Kelly green this past weekend, Saturday was it for the foreseeable future barring a postseason meeting. They are the last in a long line of players who participated and made their mark in the Minnesota-North Dakota WCHA rivalry.
At the same time, that type of history does not get erased even though the series will go on hiatus. The high expectations and bragging rights can never go away. Nor does the feeling of wanting to get one last win at all costs or playing in a regular season game despite not being 100 percent. Much like the Sioux nickname and Indian head logo that North Dakota retired in 2012 (they were well represented in the stands and even on old hockey shirts), North Dakota versus Minnesota will live on through the moments players from the two teams created.
“There has been a lot of guys that have donned that Sioux jersey and there will be a lot of people watching,” MacWilliam said. “I mean it’s been a heated rival over the years, and there’s a lot of history between the two teams.”
Even if the final lasting image for now is a not-so-memorable tie.