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UND hockey players reminded daily of Minnesota rivalry

GRAND FORKS -- Each day, the University of North Dakota hockey players enter Ralph Engelstad Arena in the northeast corner. They swipe their keycard and walk down a winding staircase. If they take a left turn at the bottom, they'll stroll by the ...

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UND's Ben Blood (24) checks Minnesota Josh Birkholz (left)to the boards in the first period of WCHA action Friday night in Grand Forks.JOHN STENNES

GRAND FORKS - Each day, the University of North Dakota hockey players enter Ralph Engelstad Arena in the northeast corner.

They swipe their keycard and walk down a winding staircase.

If they take a left turn at the bottom, they'll stroll by the photos.

There's Matt Watkins and Chris VandeVelde with their arms raised in front of Minnesota goalie Jeff Frazee, celebrating the overtime goal that sent UND to the 2007 NCAA Frozen Four.

There's Corban Knight, on a knee, with a smile from ear to ear, celebrating his tip-in goal during a game now know as simply "The Comeback" or "The Timeout Game."

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There's Evan Trupp celebrating a goal against the Gophers. No, not that one. This was a first-period goal in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

If the players take a right turn at the bottom of the stairs, they'll see more photos.

There's Joe Finley leveling a Minnesota player near the team bench.

There's Matt Frattin charging Gopher forward Kevin Wehrs in the northeast corner of The Ralph-a hit that earned Frattin a one-game suspension.

No matter where they walk in the locker room area, there are constant reminders of what has been arguably college hockey's most heated rivalry.

That's why UND coach Brad Berry believes that his players have a strong understanding of the history, despite the fact that not a single one of them has ever played against the Gophers.

"It's on our walls all over the rink," UND coach Brad Berry said. "We haven't played them in a few years, but the history and the tradition resonate throughout this building and our program."

But just to make sure, Washington Capitals players T.J. Oshie and Taylor Chorney showed up at practice Monday to talk to the team.

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Oshie and Chorney were in Winnipeg, preparing for a Tuesday-night NHL game against the Jets. They rented a car and made the six-hour round trip to Grand Forks to drop in at Monday practice.

Oshie and Chorney, who were part of the only UND team to sweep at Mariucci Arena since 1980, emphasized how special the weekend is for not only the players but also the alumni watching around the country.

"They said to make sure you're ready for the weekend, make sure you prepare, enjoy the weekend, the intensity and battle and competition," Berry said. "And they said to know that there are people behind them watching that have played in the series as well."

While Oshie and Chorney got to play against the Gophers 12 times in three seasons, meetings have become scarce these days.

When the Western Collegiate Hockey Association split up in the fall of 2013, it ended a run of 66 consecutive years of regular-season meetings between the border rivals.

By fate, they met in the 2014 NCAA Frozen Four - Minnesota won 2-1 - but that's the most recent meeting.

This year's seniors were freshmen during the 2014 meeting.

UND only has two seniors on the roster - captain Gage Ausmus and goalie Matt Hrynkiw - but neither played on that night.

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Only four current Gophers played in that game - seniors Justin Kloos, Taylor Cammarata, Vinni Lettieri and Connor Reilly. None reached the box score that night via point or penalty.

"Obviously, I would have loved to play in this series all four years I was here," said Ausmus, who grew up in East Grand Forks. "I guess one is better than none. It's just very exciting. Growing up here and watching the series and rivalry, it's something to get excited about. I think our whole team is pretty excited.

"I think everyone is very aware of this rivalry and what goes on and how the game is played. I don't think that's a secret to anyone. It's known around the hockey world that this is a big series, no matter what the stakes are. This is a big weekend for us."

This weekend's series - 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday in Mariucci - will be the first of seven consecutive seasons that the rivals will meet.

Next season, the series will be in The Ralph.

In 2018-19, they'll play a single game in Las Vegas.

In 2019-20 and 2021-22, they'll play series in Minneapolis. In 2020-21 and 2022-23, they'll play series in Grand Forks.

"I didn't like those seasons where there weren't any games at The Ralph or down in Mariucci," Grand Forks native and UND forward Johnny Simonson said. "I think there should be a series every season between these two programs because it's so special and because there's so much tradition there."

Ticket prices for this weekend's series are the highest for any Gopher series in program history-$80 to $115 for standing room. Minnesota also ditched its normal practice of moving hockey series to Friday-Sunday if the football team is playing Saturday afternoon to avoid traffic problems.

Despite the 2:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday, the Gophers kept the hockey game that night.

Players of both teams are expecting an atmosphere better than anything they've seen before. After all, none of them have played in this rivalry game at a home site.

"There are a bunch of Gopher fans in Grand Forks and a bunch of North Dakota fans in Minneapolis," Ausmus said. "I think that's what's great. There are so many people invested in the series.

"And obviously, the players aren't fond of each other and that makes it better."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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