MINNEAPOLIS — Long before Zach Parise made his highly celebrated return to Minnesota with the Wild, he was considered an enemy by many hockey fans in the Twin Cities.
Parise, the son of former North Stars player and coach J.P. Parise, was born in Minneapolis. He was a prep star at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a player who was endeared locally. Then Parise made the decision to play college hockey at North Dakota. All the goodwill his name and play had built up evaporated while he wore the sweater of the University of Minnesota’s biggest rival.
Growing up in the Twin Cities and playing in North Dakota, Parise has seen both sides of one of the most intense rivalries in college hockey. Rivalries often are lived through the fans, and Parise said the border battle with the Gophers and North Dakota extended to the players.
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“When you’re there you learn to hate them,” Parise told FOX Sports North last week. “And that’s just like any other rivalry. It makes it a little more fun. And then you get to know the players after and that kind of dies down a bit.”
Minnesota fans have come around again when it comes to Parise, who is the newest star for the Wild after signing a lucrative 13-year contract as the top free agent in the NHL last summer. But the rivalry has lost little sizzle since Parise last played for North Dakota in 2004. For a rivalry that has existed since the 1947-48 season, it’s hard to find one that’s been much closer.
Minnesota leads the overall series, 137-130-14, dating back to North Dakota’s first varsity season in 1947-48. Last year, the Gophers won four of the six meetings between the two teams. In March, North Dakota rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Minnesota, 6-3, to win the WCHA Final Five championship. The Gophers then came back and ended North Dakota’s season with a 5-2 win in the NCAA West Regional.
Ranked No. 1 in the country, Minnesota (16-3-3, 8-3-3 WCHA) hosts No. 6 North Dakota (13-6-3, 8-3-3) for the final time at Mariucci Arena as members of the WCHA this weekend, with the Gophers starting play in the new Big Ten conference next year. Both teams are tied for third in the WCHA with 19 points, only adding to this weekend’s drama.
This rivalry, built on its long history, doesn’t need much to increase the intensity.
“First word that comes to me, right off the bat, is passion,” said Brad Bombardir, a former North Dakota player and currently the Director of Player Development for the Wild. “There’s a passion there. … You could see it in (players’) eyes, and certainly the coaching staff, too. I know it meant a lot to them — I could tell it meant a lot. You learned right away.”
Both sides learned and the word that keeps popping up for former participants in the rivalry is hatred.
“Hatred toward each other is a pretty good start,” said Ben Hankinson, a former Gophers defenseman. “North Dakota usually has a lineup of older, Canadian players, back in my era, especially. And we were younger Minnesota players. So I think (in) that battle we get tested pretty hard. I just think the fierce, competitiveness of the games was the biggest reason for the rivalry.”
Former Minnesota coach Doug Woog believes some of the nastiness and physical play was the result of the differences in the rosters. Woog felt North Dakota, with a largely Canadian roster, took pride in being more physical.
“It didn’t bother them to take an elbow to the chops,” Woog said. “It was part of the game. If you lost a tooth, that was kind of a (badge of) courage. … They had some techniques of physicality that were challenging. And they were cocky, and why not? Canada does not want to lose any games. And they want their players to win, whether it’s a fight or it’s scoring, or whatever. There’s a high intensity in driving for the No. 1 spot.”
This year, North Dakota has six Minnesotans on the roster, including Eden Prairie native Danny Kristo, who leads the team with 13 goals and has 17 assists. But even the cross-state connections add to the rivalry.
Parise remembers hearing it from the once-loyal Minnesota fans.
“I remember getting booed, and that’s fine,” he said.
Surely the visitors will get much the same treatment this weekend. After all, it’ll be a while before Gophers fans get the same chance again.