Big Ten is On Its Way
Minnesota, Michigan Sweeps Kick Start New League
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
For as big of a deal as the Big Ten has been made out to be, the opening weekend of conference play seemed familiar to college hockey.
Longtime border rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin kicked off the inaugural conference game at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis on Friday afternoon, less than 10 miles away from where the season will end with the Big Ten tournament, without much fanfare. Conference commissioner Jim Delany was in Ann Arbor for the other conference game played Friday between Ohio State and Michigan. The pomp and circumstance of opening night went with him.
Despite the lack of fanfare and a subpar TV broadcast beginning at 4 p.m. local time, 2 1/2 years of serious planning and conversations by the Big Ten made things run smoothly. Friday felt like just another game on the ice. The feeling shined through even if both teams knew historically that was not the case.
“It’s something we talked about – getting the first (Big Ten) win ever,” Gophers head coach Don Lucia said after Friday’s 4-1 victory. “It’s something that we stressed during the course of the week. So I’m really happy for us to come out and get the first win in the first game.”
The inaugural game was full of firsts. Wisconsin forward Joseph LaBate scored the first goal in Big Ten conference history 6:31 into Friday’s contest. He was followed by Gophers defenseman Mike Reilly, whose power-play goal was both the first Minnesota and special teams goal. Teammate Seth Ambroz was the first player to score multiple goals; an honor he would match the next night.
Honors aside, the built-in rivalry helped. If it weren’t for the “B1G” logos next to the blue lines last weekend could have been another WCHA series (where the two teams played until 2013).
“It’s the same,” Badgers head coach Mike Eaves said. “It was a tight game with good plays and good saves. If I’m a college fan, it was a pretty good game.”
That came through even more during the second game of the two-game series.
The firsts continued to happen Saturday yet came up less and less as the story shifted to the tight play on the ice between Wisconsin and the Gophers. Both teams were looking for bragging rights. The Badgers responded with goals by its big forwards in Nic Kerdiles and Michael Mersch, but it wasn’t enough.
With 26 seconds left in regulation, the Big Ten got its first taste of a Minnesota-Wisconsin ending. Ambroz headed to the net in front of Joel Rumpel and put a Travis Boyd rebound past the Badgers goalie.
“That’s the rivalry, obviously,” Kerdiles said. “The Big Ten is the new league and we’re excited to play in it.”
It was an ending that harkened back to 2006 when then-Minnesota freshman Tony Lucia dove in the UW crease for the game winner. That’s the last time at home the Gophers swept Wisconsin, two teams that have combined for 11 NCAA titles, 59 NCAA tournament appearances and 18 regular-season titles.
Still, that history does come with a few new changes in 2013-14. Kyle Rau pointed out the victory counts a little more for Minnesota because the Big Ten offers three points for every game in its 20 game conference schedule.
“Six points instead of four is a big difference,” he said.
For Wisconsin, suffering a last-minute loss stung regardless. No one was hurt more than Mersch, who went from scoring the game-tying goal to having his pass set up Minnesota’s winner. Although his teammates were supportive and thought he had a great game, it wasn’t much consolation for the senior minutes after defeat.
“I thought I let my team down tonight. It was a tough play with 26 seconds left,” said Mersch. “Coach … he trusts me to put me out there and it’s a tough feeling right now. I’m lucky to have good teammates who give me a pat on the back and help me through a tough time.”
There are pros to easing familiarity into a new surrounding; however, it also means the culture shock is postponed for another week.
“I don’t think it will really hit us until we’ve played Ohio State, Michigan State and play them four times in a year,” Eaves said.
That changes next weekend when the Badgers host Penn State and Minnesota travels to Michigan State. It will be what the Big Ten hopes to become familiar in the following years. For one weekend, the new conference took a page from the past while adding something to the future on the ice.
“That’s what (Minnesota-Wisconsin) is. We can be in any conference. It doesn’t matter,” said Lucia. “We’re playing for rivalry. Now that we’ve left the WCHA, I’m sure this rivalry will heat up maybe like it was in the 70s and 80s.”