McLeod Hockey Blog: Gophers-North Dakota is a rivalry for the ages

October 19, 2017

The first Gopher hockey game I ever called was in Grand Forks. The next day, I lost my voice. That gives you some idea of the intensity – not to mention the unrelenting noise – that always accompanies this storied college series. Back then, the Fighting Sioux played at the UND Winter Sports Center. Its green-and-white seats made it look like a mini Met Center and the flat ceiling reflected sound in waves.

One of the many highlights of weekends in Grand Forks was the fans. More than a few brought libations with them and weren’t shy about imbibing. A good number of them also brought frozen, dead gophers that had been stashed away, sometimes for months, just for those games. How they managed to smuggle them into the building past security eludes me.

Any game that went for a period of time with no North Dakota scoring inevitably caused those gopher remains, snugged against warm skin beneath winter clothing, to gradually thaw. Everyone knew where they were then. I was on radio in those days and when the Sioux finally scored, I would describe the air being filled with pelt after stinking, thawing pelt. They would arc out of the stands and smack the ice and slide, leaving crimson trails. The arena attendants just loved scraping up that mess after every North Dakota goal.

I made it a point to note how many pelts hit the ice and would dutifully describe a Sioux score as, for example, “a six-dead-Gopher goal”.

Another highlight was the unpredictable weather. Many times, I barely made it in and out by air. The one time I decided to drive, the mighty fist of winter slammed the Red River Valley hard and long. Driving out of the Forks on Sunday morning, the snow was so dense that I drove under the I-29 overpass, past the on-ramp and nearly to Grand Forks International Airport before I realized I had gone too far. I did a U-turn, somehow managed to get onto the interstate, then gripped the wheel for a couple of tense hours of iffy winter driving, praying not to hit other traffic or miss Fargo and wind up in Omaha.

I hadn’t been on the road more than a few minutes when the radio announced that I-29 was closed. News to me. No one tried to keep me off, and by that time I couldn’t find a way to get off. So, my companion and I soldiered along on the great snow-drifted concrete ribbon. I managed to grope my way to Fargo where we exited at the first truck stop and waited out the storm.

The most important memories about all the years of Gophers-Sioux hockey, of course, involve the players and games. There is not enough space here to recount all of those highlights. One of the best, though, came at the end of my first Gopher season. At the old Olympia Stadium in Detroit, Neal Broten danced around a poke check and pulled the trigger on one of the greatest of all Golden Gopher goals. It brought Minnesota the 1979 NCAA tournament championship and propelled Broten on his way to becoming the first Hobey Baker Award in 1981.

Head Coach Herb Brooks took the nucleus of that ‘79 team to Olympic glory a year later in Lake Placid.

Now, of course, North Dakota is the Fighting Hawks. Minnesota plays in Grand Forks this weekend for the first time since 2012. We don’t get to go. The NCHC owns those games and that is that. It isn’t our fault. It isn’t Don Lucia’s fault, as a few local hotheads have been mumbling. It isn’t even North Dakota’s fault. It’s college hockey and these days, college hockey is big business.

If you’re going to Grand Forks, enjoy Ralph Engelstad Arena. I still haven’t been there.

If you’re attending one of the many viewing parties, have a great time and please booze it up responsibly. However you manage this weekend, never take the Minnesota-North Dakota series for granted. Remember how many years these terrific matchups didn’t happen before the NCAA ban on Native American team names finally got cleared up. Those strictures kept two of the elite programs in all of college sports apart for far longer than was good for either the rivalry or its fans.

DOUG McLEOD is the five-time Emmy Award-winning play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports and a longtime voice of Division I and NHL hockey. This is his 21st season calling Golden Gopher hockey games.