What was always a great rivalry -- despite being largely dominated by Minnesota -- got a jolt of new energy April 9, when Kyle Schmidt put a centering pass from Travis Oleksuk past Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick. It gave UMD its first national championship in men's hockey, and it was accomplished in a Frozen Four that was hosted by the University of Minnesota and played in St. Paul.
Appearing on KFAN with Paul Allen Aug. 30, Minnesota captain Taylor Mattson admitted the scene bugged him.
"It really bites you," he said. "We've beaten them ... twice last year, so it's really hard to take that in. Especially for a Minnesota team, you hate to see the spotlight go to them."
(Yes, we know Minnesota only beat UMD once last year. But I'm telling you what he said. Maybe he wishes they'd beaten UMD a second time. Anyway, that's not the relevant part of that quote, and you all know it. Hehe.)
Asked about that quote Wednesday, UMD coach Scott Sandelin deadpanned, "Maybe they're respecting us a little more."
"I think there's a bit of an arrogance there, but they've always had good teams, and that's why they're always fun to play and beat. And for us as a 'small school' so to speak, it's just one of those things. You learn to have a dislike for certain teams. For me personally, for our guys, this is one of those teams."
Matson made it abundantly clear this week when asked about this rivalry ... it means something to him and his teammates.
"It is a huge rivalry," he said. "It is in-state and has been around forever. They are the defending national champions, so we have to give them credit for last season. We have to go in and play hard every single shift and for the entire game. We have to go up there with the right mentality.
"They are the defending national champs and we have to go into their barn. Their fans are going to be rowdy, so we have to try and control the pace with our speed and ability.
"They are a University of Minnesota school as well and it is great for the state, but we want to be the best team in Minnesota."
It wasn't a topic of discussion at the time, but Schmidt's historic game-winner may have re-ignited a rivalry that felt a bit too one-sided in recent years. Gopher fans openly rooted for UMD at the Frozen Four, one of them walking by me with a Minnesota jersey that had a UMD logo taped over the block "M" on the front and on the shoulders. A brilliant look, a likely "Jersey Foul," and something about 95 percent of UMD fans would never do in return.
This is my seventh year covering UMD hockey. While I've never particularly cared for Minnesota, I've developed a great respect for coach Don Lucia, to the point where I took a lot of guff from Gopher fans for a column I wrote last year defending the work he's been doing. I think the world of new/old assistant coach Mike Guentzel, a superb hockey mind who will add to this program in every way. The media folks -- most notably radio guys Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco (welcome back!) -- are top-notch professionals and a joy to deal with on game nights. Hockey SID Paul Rovnak is a rock star.
Basically, from my standpoint, it's hard to root against Minnesota. The program may have a history of arrogance, and it may still come out in certain ways, but there are too many good people connected to the program. It's just not easy for me to "hate" the Gophers.
Of course, that doesn't mean I don't take great joy out of watching the Bulldogs beat them. I get the significance of this weekend. I get what this opportunity means for a large chunk of the UMD roster. The guys who are from Canada -- or, in the unfortunate case of Mike Seidel, Illinois -- have been around long enough to understand what it means.
"It's a big opportunity for me and the team to show what we can do out there," junior Jake Hendrickson, a Cities kid, said this week. "Watching the Gophers growing up, until my junior year of high school, it was the team I was rooting for. Obviously, now I'm looking forward to a good weekend against them."
That said, Hendrickson said the Gophers are just another opponent, to a certain extent. He noted that he also watched teams like North Dakota, Wisconsin, and St. Cloud State growing up, and it's special to play against all of them, too.
Of course, Hendrickson's ears are functional, and he knows that even if this series doesn't mean a ton more in the room, it means more to the paying customers, who want to see their beloved Bulldogs take down the "mighty" Gophers.
"Hopefully, this place is going to be rocking again this weekend. I know the students and the fans get pumped up when the 'U' comes up here, so it should be a good time."
It's going to be a challenge on the ice. That's for sure. Minnesota has a formidable team, led by senior goalie Kent Patterson and forwards like Erik Haula, Jake Hansen, Matson, and youngsters Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau, and Seth Ambroz. Minnesota can play, and they're dying for a chance to take down the defending national champions, who happen to be a pretty intense rival.
Weird how things eventually come full circle, isn't it?
Look for a UMD lineup very similar to last Friday against Notre Dame, only without forward Cody Danberg. No changes to the top two lines are expected, the defensive pairs should be identical, and Kenny Reiter is expected to be in goal.