Gophers may not be back to UND for a whileGRAND FORKS — The University of Minnesota first came to Grand Forks to play men’s hockey in January 1948. Ginny Christian was there.
By: Brad E. Schlossman, Forum Communications Co.
GRAND FORKS — The University of Minnesota first came to Grand Forks to play men’s hockey in January 1948.
Ginny Christian was there.
“We were waiting for them to come,” said Christian, a sophomore forward for the University of North Dakota at the time. “It was a big game. They all were big games when we played Minnesota.”
UND won that first meeting 5-3 and lost in overtime the next night. The Gophers returned to play in Grand Forks in 62 of the next 64 years, including this weekend’s two-game series between top-20 teams (6:37 tonight and 6:07 p.m. Saturday, Ralph Engelstad Arena).
But for the first time in program history, nobody knows when Minnesota will be back.
The Gophers don’t come to Ralph Engelstad Arena next season (the teams do play in Minneapolis). Then, in 2013-14, both teams will split from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to new conferences: Minnesota to the Big Ten, UND to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Though both schools say they plan to continue playing as nonconference opponents, it probably won’t happen every year and the rivals currently do not have any games scheduled beyond next season.
Even if they play in the future, one thing is for certain. This weekend’s series is the last between the teams in Grand Forks as WCHA rivals.
Christian, who was there when the rivalry was born in 1948, will be in Ralph Engelstad Arena for this weekend’s series. The 84-year-old from Warroad, Minn., is a regular at home games and believes that the rivalry will continue.
“I’m sure North Dakota would want to play the Gophers and they will want to play us,” Christian said. “We always draw a crowd. It would be kind of goofy if they didn’t play. They beg for money and then don’t play?”
There have only been three seasons in UND hockey history where the Gophers have not come to Grand Forks: the inaugural season of 1946-47, 2002-03 and 2006-07. UND’s first season of Division I hockey is the only one where the teams did not meet at all.
The rivalry’s results have swung both ways.
Minnesota had an 11-game unbeaten streak from 1973-76. UND had an 11-game unbeaten streak from 1997-2000. But for the most part, it has been cyclical, dating back to those early years of the program.
“We used to draw very big crowds and the students would really be behind us, too,” Christian said. “It’s kind of the same thing now.”
Penalties show rivalries’ intensity
Minnesota has come to Grand Forks for a regular season series in each of the last three years.
The penalty minutes in those series have totaled 96, 103 and 152.
“It’s always been a huge rivalry,” UND alternate captain Ben Blood said. “Every time we play each other, something happens to add to it. There’s always a big scrum or a fight at the end of the period or something. Every time we play each other, another piece gets added on to the huge rivalry that it is.”
The latest chapter — the last chapter in Grand Forks as Western Collegiate Hockey Association rivals — will be written this weekend.
When the teams met earlier this season in Mariucci Arena, they combined for 18 penalties and 47 penalty minutes — in a single period. UND, the second-least penalized team in the league, had five players in the penalty box at one time.
“We know that they don’t like us very much and we don’t like them,” UND junior forward Danny Kristo said. “It’s just a great rivalry. I think the fans love it. When we went there this year, it was a great atmosphere. This weekend, it will be an unbelievable atmosphere, too. It should be fun.”
The first series didn’t go well for UND.
The Gophers shut out UND 2-0 in the series opener and rallied to win the series finale 3-2 on a goal by Kyle Rau with less than a minute remaining. It marked Minnesota’s first home sweep of UND in 10 seasons.
“It was a rough go for us down there in the Cities,” Blood said. “Now, it’s different. We’re a different team now. We’ve come a long ways since they handed us those two losses there in Mariucci. Now, we’re up here and in our building and it will be a different story.”
UND left Mariucci with a 3-6-1 mark, 1-5 in WCHA play. The team was averaging just 2.4 goals per game and giving up 3.3.
Since, UND is 8-2-1, averaging 3.72 goals per game in that span, while giving up 2.27.
“We’ve grown up a lot as a team,” Blood said. “We don’t have freshmen on the ice anymore. We have guys that are contributing and guys that have stepped up and played big minutes for us. They can make plays for us now.”
Minnesota, meanwhile, has cooled off a little bit.
The Gophers were 9-1 after sweeping UND, averaging 4.8 goals per game and giving up 1.6. Since that series, Minnesota is 6-6-1, averaging 3.46 goals per game and giving up 2.54.
Minnesota (15-7-1 overall, 11-3 WCHA) still sits atop the WCHA standings and hadn’t lost back-to-back games until dropping a 4-3 decision against Notre Dame last weekend. Six of Minnesota’s seven losses this season have come by just one goal.
“Everyone gets fired up for this weekend more than any other weekend,” Kristo said. “Everyone marks it on their calendars. But it’s just another game and another weekend for our team.”
Schlossman is a sports reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.