Friday, January 18, 2013

End of Minnesota-North Dakota A Loss For College Hockey

One of the enduring things with college sports has to be the rivalries that exist.

In football, we have a multitude of great traditions, including Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Cal-Stanford, Harvard-Yale, Amherst-Williams, and so many others.

In basketball, there's Duke-North Carolina, Michigan-Michigan State, Kentucky-Louisville, Syracuse-Georgetown, and the list goes on.

Hockey has many great traditional rivalries, too. Among them: Minnesota vs. North Dakota.

And this weekend, the two will meet for the last scheduled time for at least a few years.

How did we get to this point?

Well, the fact of the matter is that Minnesota is moving to the Big Ten next season, while North Dakota joins UMD and six others in helping launch the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. They are under no obligation to play, and it doesn't appear they will for some time.

Minnesota coach Don Lucia has offered multiple reasons for the end of the rivalry. He's talked generically in the past about things becoming too heated (more on that in a second), as well as mentioning the UND nickname fiasco, the need to continue playing in-state teams, and a desire to take his players to see different places.

(Minnesota has scheduling deals in place with Notre Dame, along with the eastern tandem of Boston College and Northeastern.)

The nickname bit is tired. Minnesota had a policy in place that would have banned Lucia from scheduling UND for non-conference games had UND not dropped the Fighting Sioux nickname, one that went away last year. Wisconsin had a similar policy, but managed to make a scheduling deal with UND going forward. Hearing that Lucia went with that card as recently as a Friday morning interview with Paul Allen on The Fan is somewhat troublesome, largely because I don't buy it.

The in-state argument holds water. Minnesota will have no fewer than four games against in-state teams in future seasons. Next year, they have a two-game home series with UMD, as well as the Minnesota Cup, where the Gophers match up against St. Cloud State in the opening round and then either UMD or Minnesota State the next day.

(I believe I heard somewhere that Minnesota is also planning to play the in-state team that rotates out of the Minnesota Cup every year, meaning the Gophers would also be playing Bemidji State next season. However, I can't confirm that.)

That's a lot of games tied up. Even UMD coach Scott Sandelin has told me he'd like to continue playing teams outside the region in non-league play, if for no other reason than to give his kids some different experiences. So I can buy that part of the argument.

However, one of the things I've heard behind the scenes more than anything is that Minnesota -- Lucia in particular -- is tired of some of the shenanigans that happen when these two teams play. It's not all about what you see on the ice, though let's go back to the last time the teams met in Grand Forks. Watch how that game ended.

At the time, I wrote that Minnesota's Jake Hansen was culpable here, because he came off the bench and two-handed Ben Blood after the game ended, and he did it while Blood was already mixed up with Minnesota players on the ice.

That doesn't excuse Blood's idiotic actions in the handshake line, which came after he was chirped by Kyle Rau, a player known for chirping. Blood behaved idiotically there, and deserved the internal punishment coach Dave Hakstol levied.

Of course, the internet tried to make Blood out to be acting alone, largely ignoring Hansen's slash that put him on tilt, and largely ignoring the possibility that a mouthy player said something he shouldn't have after an emotional game.

Incidents like this have been too common lately, but that's not all.

"The Gophers have had some really unpleasant travel experiences in Grand Forks," UMD alum Jess Myers said this week. Myers, who covers the Gophers for 1500 ESPN, came the closest to laying out one of the specific reasons why Minnesota is generally being credited with blamed for discontinuing this rivalry.

"If you're the schedule makers, and you're Don Lucia, you're looking at them as a non-conference team, and you're saying 'I don't need to subject myself to that anymore.'

"'I don't need to go up there and get spit at on the bench, and get my wife and kids harassed.'

"God bless North Dakota fans for being as passionate as they are, but there's a place where you have to draw a line."

(You'll hear this in our normal Friday night chat in the second intermission. Jess goes on to talk about how this is somewhat personal for him, because Minnesota-UND was his first exposure to college hockey while growing up in Warroad.)

It's not all on Lucia, but he's taking the brunt of the criticism for it. I'm sure he's okay with that, and if not, he has no choice.

Perhaps a cooling-off period is what is best for these two heated rivals. The fact that people beat each other up over the Alabama-Auburn game, or the fact that soccer fans riot during rivalry matches, none of that makes the action okay.

If Minnesota thinks the Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry has gone too far, Minnesota should fess up and say that, however. It shouldn't be my job or Jess' job to talk about that stuff. If Don Lucia is discontinuing this series -- even in part -- because he's sick of how he, his family, or his players, get treated in Grand Forks, he needs to say that.

I tend to believe it's a big part of this, because the other stuff doesn't hold water. If you were responsible for making your team's schedule, and you had a traditional rival you were no longer going to share a conference with, why wouldn't you hold a spot on the schedule for that rival? College sports can be all about rivalries for some, and certainly the players feel that intensity, too. For a young man who grew up wanting to be a Gopher, isn't at least part of that the chance to feel the Minnesota-UND rivalry? Certainly, that youngster didn't dream of growing up and wanting to play Northeastern or Boston College. Or Penn State, for that matter.

It's the reality, the hand we're dealt. As a college hockey fan, I'm going to really miss these two teams playing each other. Hopefully, cooler heads prevail, and the teams can start scheduling each other as soon as it's humanly possible to do so.

In the meantime, I can only hope a couple years off will make people appreciate what this rivalry should be about. It's not about the extracurriculars that have marred games. It's not about handshake-line hi jinx. It's not about taking a chance to spit on a coach or throw something at a player.

It's about great players and great hockey. Just ask Blake Wheeler.

Or Chris Porter.

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