MINNEAPOLIS — By now, the midweek routine has become old hat for Gophers senior Nate Condon.
As the lone Wisconsin native on Minnesota’s roster, all eyes turn to Condon whenever the Gophers play their neighbors to the east. It happens twice each year, so this week marks the eighth time Condon has been the focal point.
"It’s my big media week for me, right?" Condon joked Tuesday. "I knew coming to the rink today what was going to happen, so I just figured I’d get here early."
Condon grew up in Wausau, Wis. — about two hours due north of Madison — and opted to head west to play for Don Lucia at Minnesota. In doing so, he became just the third-ever Wisconsin-born player to skate for the Gophers. Many fans know Madison native and current NHL star Phil Kessel’s story as the first Wisconsin native on a Gophers roster, while Somerset’s Sam Lofquist played for Minnesota several years back before leaving the program.
When the Gophers face off against the Badgers at the Kohl Center in Madison this Thursday and Friday, Condon said he’ll have about 20 family members in attendance. While he may face Wisconsin again in the postseason, this will be Condon’s last hurrah in his home state.
"It’s always fun. It’s great because I get to go back and play and a bunch of my family’s always there," Condon said. "It still keeps it interesting."
In a year in which Minnesota has lacked a true go-to scorer or star attraction on offense, Condon has been a steady contributor as a senior. While he’s scored just five goals in 26 games, he’s added 11 assists and has served as a co-captain and a team leader on the ice for the Gophers.
Now Condon will try to lead his team to six big points this weekend when he skates in Wisconsin one last time as a Gopher.
"Nate brings great speed. He can play in basically any situation on the ice," said Lucia. "He’s a guy that you want on the ice when you’re ahead by a goal with a minute to go because he’s very responsible defensively. His speed can get him up into the play and make things happen. Just a great guy to be around. Nate doesn’t have many bad days. I think that he’s got a tremendous attitude and looks forward to coming to the rink every day."
The rest of the Gophers roster should also enjoy coming to the rink given how well Minnesota has played this year. After a win and a tie over Michigan State this past weekend, Lucia’s team is now 19-2-5 overall and 8-0-2 in the newly-formed Big Ten Conference. The Gophers are nine points ahead of second-place Michigan in the standings, but Minnesota does have two games in hand over the Wolverines.
Minnesota and Michigan have yet to face off this year and will do so for the first time after the Gophers’ series against the Badgers. Despite the lead in the Big Ten, Minnesota can’t get too comfortable — especially heading into a rivalry weekend.
"We’ve got the standings posted in our locker room, so we’re well aware of what’s going on," Condon said. "But we’ve still got four games against Michigan and two games against Wisconsin. So while we do have a little bit of a lead right now, I think with the three points with a win, it can swing real fast."
While Condon is looking forward to facing Wisconsin for the reason that it’s his hometown team, Gophers junior Seth Ambroz is anticipating the rivalry for a different reason. When Minnesota faced the Badgers at Mariucci Arena earlier this year, Ambroz scored two goals in each game, lifting the Gophers to a 4-1 win in the first game of the weekend and a 4-3 victory in the series finale.
Ambroz leads Minnesota with 11 goals heading into the weekend, and he’s hoping to add to that total against a team he’s had success against already this year.
"I try not to think about it too much. It’s just another team," Ambroz said. "You just want to be able to play your best hockey and not think about it too much. Obviously, yeah, I’ve had some success against Wisconsin, but at the same time I hope I can continue that. But the most important thing is just the team hopefully coming out with a pair of wins."
Even if Ambroz doesn’t score, he and his teammates will get one last chance to give Condon some good-natured ribbing about returning home to Wisconsin.
"Obviously most of our team’s from Minnesota. For him to go back home, it’s nice to play in front of his family and friends," Ambroz said. "I have a feeling he’ll have a good weekend. He usually does at Wisconsin, so it’s good for him to head back there. It should be fun for him, as well as for us."