Minnesota-UND could be extra intense now

MINNEAPOLIS — Unlike many of his Gophers teammates, Nate Condon didn’t grow up in Minnesota. That means he never had a great perspective on one of the best rivalries in college hockey.

It wasn’t until Condon played for the USHL’s Fargo Force that the Wausau, Wis., native was truly introduced to Minnesota’s biggest rivalry with neighboring North Dakota. Condon lived with a family in Fargo during his time with the Force, and the family was die-hard fans and season-ticket holders of the hockey team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux.

“I committed (to Minnesota) before I went there, and they were still nice about it,” Condon said. “But they had a Sioux room in their basement. It was a little bit awkward sometimes. … I didn’t go in that room too often.”

Once Condon stepped foot on the University of Minnesota campus in 2010, he fully realized just how deep the Gophers’ rivalry with North Dakota actually runs. The two sides seem to match up well every year and are typically two of the usual suspects competing for the WCHA title. Because of that, there always seems to be a little bit of bad blood between the schools.

Minnesota and North Dakota have played 288 times, with the Gophers winning exactly half of those games. Last season, the rivals faced off six times, with Minnesota winning four times. During the 2009-10 season, they met seven times, including three games in the WCHA playoffs.

But this weekend marks the last time the two rivals will play each other as members of the same conference. Next season, Minnesota will be leaving the WCHA and joining the six-team Big Ten Conference.

Due to a few quirks in the upcoming schedules, the Gophers and UND won’t face off again in the regular season for several years. Gophers head coach Don Lucia said that Minnesota has a rule as a university that the Gophers can’t play teams with the Fighting Sioux nickname, unless they’re in the same conference. So at the time it was announced that the Gophers would join the Big Ten for hockey, North Dakota still had the Fighting Sioux nickname.

UND’s moniker has since been removed (the school currently has no nickname), but the change didn’t occur until after the schedules for the next few years had been set. Until then, Minnesota is committed to 20 Big Ten games and eight games against in-state schools — the Minnesota-Duluths and St. Cloud States of the world — along with a few other series. But the Gophers won’t face off against their biggest rival for several years.

“I think we have a pretty good situation right now,” Lucia said. “There’s change, and with change some of it’s good and some of it’s bad.”

The omission of North Dakota on upcoming schedules puts extra emphasis on this weekend’s series — as if Minnesota’s players needed any motivation to face UND.

“It’s a huge weekend, obviously, with this being the last regular-season meeting we have for a while,” said junior Zach Budish. “I think there’s always a little extra emotion when you play North Dakota just because of the rivalry. Most of the guys on our team grew up watching the Gophers and North Dakota play every year. … It’ll definitely be intense and we’ll expect two hard-fought games.”

It’s a big weekend for Minnesota sports, including this rivalry. On Thursday night, the ninth-ranked Gophers men’s basketball team will host No. 5 Michigan at Williams Arena. Friday and Saturday will include the top-ranked Gophers hockey team hosting No. 6 North Dakota. Saturday, which is Hockey Day in Minnesota, is also the Minnesota Wild’s 2013 season opener after a lengthy lockout.

Need to know where the Gophers’ series with North Dakota falls on the Minnesota sports spectrum? Just look at the secondary ticket market. The cheapest ticket for Saturday night’s game at Mariucci: a $95 asking price — and that’s for a standing room only ticket.

“I think that shows the intensity and the emotion of this series,” Lucia said. “When you step on the ice, there’s a little buzz in the crowd. I think it gets the players a little more excited to play than maybe a normal game.”

Now the question remains as to what will happen to the rivalry once the teams aren’t playing every year and aren’t vying for the WCHA title on a consistent basis. Many of the current Gophers players won’t be in college anymore by the time Minnesota and North Dakota play another regular-season series.

Can this rivalry, currently considered one of the best in college hockey, stand the test of time?

“I think rivalries when you’re in the same conference mean more, because you’re playing for points, you’re playing for spots in the standings,” Lucia said. “I think that always takes a little bit of precedence. … When you play somebody every couple years or just two games a year, it’s not the same as when you play them four times or six times in a given year.”

There’s a good chance Minnesota and North Dakota could see each other again in the WCHA playoffs. For now, though, fans can enjoy this heated rivalry one more time.

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