In 2013, the world of college hockey got a face lift. But it wasn't a good face lift; it was more liken to a Joan Rivers or Mickey Rourke catastrophe. The NCAA had decided, in the best interests of teams nationwide, that a serious realignment of multiple conferences was in order. The Western Collegiate Hockey Association - or WCHA, was one of those conferences.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers joined the WCHA in 1951 and displayed a dominance over the conference for the next six decades of play. That is, until 2013 when they were prodded by the NCAA to pack their bags and join the upcoming Big Ten conference; an island of misfit teams including the newly-made-Division I team, Penn State. There had always been a push to establish a Big Ten conference in Men's Collegiate Hockey, and personally, I saw it as inevitable. The tragedy in taking the Gophers away from the WCHA, however, lies not only in the fact that a once great and profound legacy had practically been stripped away from the team and replaced by a quote unquote, "brighter and more opportune" blank slate, but more so that one of the best rivalries in college hockey was put to death at the moment of the realignment's conception.
... one of the best rivalries in college hockey was put to death at the moment of the realignment's conception.
The University of Minnesota and the University of North Dakota go together about as well as water and oil. The two teams have an actual, tangible aversion for each other, one built on the foundation of respect for playing ability, but latent with a competitive fire fueled by decades of hard hitting, fast paced conference play. But, as the NCAA stuck its clumsy fingers into the world of collegiate hockey and decided to "shake things up," it would seem that the they valued the rivalry very little. The University of Minnesota went off to the Big Ten, joining the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio, and Penn State, while the University of North Dakota stayed in the WCHA for a season and was later inducted into the ranks of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) in 2014.
I can vividly remember the first time I sat down and watched a Gopher Hockey game. We were playing North Dakota at home in Mariucci Arena, and the seats were packed- half green, half maroon and gold. I can sincerely thank the University of North Dakota for my interest in the sport. As I watched the Gophers play the "Sioux" and saw how excited my father and my grandfather were that night, how genuinely invested they were in the team, I began to fall in love with college hockey. I don't know why it was so instantaneous or how, but maybe it was because I sensed the history of the two teams, I felt the animosity between the players as an illegal hit was made, saw the fire ignite in Don Lucia's eyes as he watched his top scorer stuff a goal in the top, pad side of the net. It truly was a beautiful thing, to watch those two teams play. If you were a Gopher fan, winning at Ralph Engelstad Arena was about as good as winning a championship title. And if you were a Gopher fan, loosing to North Dakota at home was the lowest of the low you could feel all season. It could put a damper on the season, psych a goalie out who had previously been on a hot streak, and haunt you till the last whistle blew in March, that was the weight and influence that the rivalry carried.
But alas, it is no more. So much for that bright blank slate.
The most confusing part about the NCAA's realignment of the WCHA, is that they benefited so little from doing it! Obviously, you'd expect them to rake in some sort of financial gain; what else would be the motivating factor if not money? But the truth is, the cities of Grand Forks and Minneapolis have most likely lost thousands of dollars since the Gophers left the WCHA in 2013 - assuming we ignore the recent oil boom North Dakota has seen. The reason why is pretty simple: no rivalry, no fans traveling across the Minnesota-North Dakota border. No fans traveling across the Minnesota-North Dakota border, less people filling in the seats at Mariucci and Engelstad Arena. Less people filling the seats at Mariucci and Engelstad Arena, less business at local restaurants, hotels, and public transportation systems in the cities of Grand Forks and Minneapolis. It's a domino effect that I guess was overlooked when the "higher ups" decided to put an end to the rivalry. For some reason I have yet to fathom, the NCAA saw the realignment as a progressive, and beneficial call to action. But really, the Big Ten is just another way in which professional sports and now collegiate sports have begun to overtly commercialize players and games. We went from a conference with character and passion and history, and got plopped down in the middle of the nation's most prominent breeding ground for athlete glorification.
We went from a conference with character and passion and history, and got plopped down in the middle of the nation's most prominent breeding ground for athlete glorification.
So yes, I am (still) quite bitter about Minnesota's departure from the WCHA, but the move to the Big Ten is only a minor problem for me, personally. The real thorn in my side comes in the form of the complete lack of thought or acknowledgement that placing Minnesota and North Dakota into two completely different conferences, where inter-conference play happens maybe once every two or three seasons, was a bad idea. Minnesota Hockey fans love to hate the University of North Dakota. We love it. And with that being said, as far as college hockey is concerned, the NCAA really has some explaining to do.
Want to learn more about the Men's and Women's Hockey teams here at the U? Check out Fresh U - Minnesota's own article on "The Gopher Hockey Dynasty".
Lead Image Credit: CBSi Advanced Media