One of these words does not apply to this weekend’s first-round playoff meeting between Minnesota and North Dakota. (Thank you, dictionary.com.) If you don’t know which word doesn’t apply, Friday night you will either be watching a home improvement show or you will quickly get caught up in one of college hockey’s great cat-and-dog rivalries on FOX Sports North. We hope it’s the latter.
Ask a player on either side about the 70-year old rivalry and you stand a 90 percent chance of hearing “we don’t like them, and they don’t like us.” From that point forward, everything is above board; may the best man win.
It’s class and culture warfare. The preppy, skilled youngsters from an urbane university in a populous state against the burly, macho, plainsmen who fight for honor and tradition. Makes for a combustible evening and, usually, great hockey.
This is Minnesota’s first WCHA playoff appearance in Grand Forks since 1987, when the famed Tony Hrkac Circus swept a two-game series for the postseason title. Three playoff series have been played in Minneapolis since then, indicating the Golden Gophers had finished higher in the standings than the Fighting Sioux at least three times. But don’t you be mentioning anything like that up in Grand Forks this weekend, unless you want to hear about the ugly past.
The ugly past is simply this: the University of Minnesota has never won a playoff game in Grand Forks. Never, as in spanning 44 years, neither WCHA nor NCAA. They lost single elimination WCHA games there in 1966 and 1967 and two-game series in both 1984 (semifinal) and 1987 (final). That’s oh-for-six, in case you’re not counting.
In the stands and on the streets there’s also a good bet we’ll see jerseys of the Holy Cross Crusaders, the last team to put a playoff hurt on the maroon and gold in Grand Forks. The famous/infamous NCAA West Region semifinal was in 2006. In 1983, the Gophers lost to Harvard and Providence in the NCAA semifinals and third place game. A combined playoff record of 0-9.
That’s the dark history. The brighter history for the U of M is in the Ralph Engelstad Arena, the opulent $110 million college hockey rink where the Gophers are an even 7-7-1 against the Sioux, 7-8-1 counting Holy Cross.
Enough history. Although the Gophers have played well in that arena, they’ve also been shredded a number of times. Which team will show up this weekend? My sense is the team that boards the bus for Grand Forks Thursday morning will not be a bunch of weak-kneed whipping boys. They spoke with calm confidence during our mid-week interview session and they’re coming off one of their most rousing wins of the season Sunday against Wisconsin.