Rivalry renewed

UND and Minnesota men’s hockey teams resume their storied cold war after a three-year hiatus with two instant classics in Minneapolis

Mike Gornall takes a shot

UND sophomore forward Mike Gornall takes a shot on Minnesota goal tender Eric Schierhorn at Mariucci Arena Saturday night on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This past weekend’s two-game series was the first time in three years that the two teams had faced off in a game. Photo by Russ Hons/ UND Athletics.

It didn’t take long Friday night for two opposing players who’d never suited up for a UND-Minnesota hockey tilt to let everyone know that it was OK to hate again.

Minnesota Golden Gopher forward Ryan Lindgren, Minneapolis born and bred, laid a vicious body check into UND Fighting Hawks captain Gage Ausmus, of East Grand Forks, only six minutes into the first period of Game 1 of last weekend’s series at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. It was the first time the two teams had faced off since April 10, 2014, when Minnesota stomped on the hearts of UND fans with a last-second goal in regulation time in the national semifinal game in Philadelphia. The teams already had stopped playing each other regularly as conference mates the year prior, when Minnesota bolted for the new Big 10 Conference.

But it was like old times again last weekend at Mariucci. Lindgren’s aggressive play got Ausmus’ dander up and led to some old-time-hockey fisticuffs and a trip to the penalty box for both young men. It was an abrupt epiphany for everyone in the arena and the thousands watching and listening around the country on TV and radio that, despite the hiatus, the more-than-60-year-old icy relationship between the two teams hadn’t thawed a bit.

Friday night’s game was one for the ages, though: after three full periods and an overtime session, no winner could be decided. The game showed off the skill and passion of the two storied rivals (with 13 national championships between them, and some of those won at the expense of the other in late tournament contests) as the two teams traded goals throughout with back-and-forth action.

“That was the best, most intense game I’ve seen since conference realignment,” said Chris Dilks, a national hockey writer, referring to the breakup that forced UND and Minnesota to temporarily part ways. “Nothing else has come close; I doubt anything will.”

If you looked only at the scoreboard, Game 2 on Saturday would have seemed far less dramatic, with Minnesota coming out on top 2-0. But accounts from people who saw and know the game indicate that UND arguably played the best game so far of its young season.

“Game 2 was even more exciting than the first night,” said Eric Burton, a longtime college hockey fan who holds bachelor and master’s degrees in sociology from UND. “I was on the edge of my couch all night long.”

UND Fighting Hawks

UND Fighting Hawks players celebrate a goal against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Friday night at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. Photo by Russ Hons/UND Athletics.

Buzz abound

Burton, who also writes a popular college hockey blog under the pseudonym “Goon,” used to attend UND hockey games regularly at the old Engelstad Arena in his student days, a period when his team wasn’t the king of the college hockey world and Minnesota was the team everyone loved to hate.

“I am 50 years old and I have watched a lot of games between the two teams,” Burton said. “I had a brother-in-law, Andy Brink, who played for the Gophers from 1992 to 1996. It was fun watching him play for the Gophers against UND — as long as UND won.”

Brad Schlossman, UND men’s hockey beat writer for the Grand Forks Herald, however, did sense some subtle then-and-now differences that might be attributed to the three-year pause in the UND-Minnesota cold war.

“There were no hard feelings between certain players from earlier years this year or from the years before, because none of them have ever played against each other at the college level,” said Schlossman, who also is a UND alumnus. “But the buzz was still there. Mariucci Arena was still lively. The players reveled in being able to play in that rivalry game. So there were differences, but the passion was, without question, still there.”

UND Fighting Hawks

UND player amass in front of the crowd after scoring a goal against Minnesota Friday night at Mariucci Arena. Photo by Russ Hons/ UND Athletics.

Fave memories

UND and Minnesota hockey players — legendary and otherwise — who have played in the series over the years, have accounted for a lifetime of exploits and tales, both good and bad, depending on which team one was rooting for.

For Burton, a recollection that stands out was a relatively recent one from the 2010 season, when former UND player Matt Frattin crushed former Gopher Kevin Wehrs with a body check in one of the corners of Ralph Engelstad Arena. The game took place at a time when UND was experiencing a lull and wins were harder to come by. The body check served as a pick-me-up, a dose of “Schadenfreude,” if you will, for UND fans. The sentiment was that it’s always a good day when bad things happen to Minnesota players.

“From time to time, UND radio play-by-play guy Tim Hennessy still refers to (that corner) as ‘Wehrs’ Corner’,” Burton said. “All you have to do is mention this and Gopher fans still get really angry.”

One of Schlossman’s more memorable moments took place in the 2012 Final Five, a conference tournament used to crown a champion and an automatic bid to the NCAA national tournament. As Schlossman recalls, Minnesota was dominating UND in one of the tourney’s semifinal games. Minnesota was beating UND 3-0 at the midpoint, and to add injury to insult — to flip a phrase — UND didn’t have enough healthy players to fill its lineup. UND’s bench was filled with third- and fourth-stringers, and young “walk-on” players hoping to prove they were good enough to get a team scholarship.

“Everything was pointing toward a 5-0 or 6-0 blowout, Schlossman said. “There was no reason to think UND had any shot at coming back.”

Then former UND head coach Dave Hakstol, who now leads the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers behind the bench, called a much-needed timeout to calm his players’ nerves. That timeout will forever go down in UND hockey lore as the spark that ignited an unbelievable turn of events.

“Out of nowhere, UND ended up scoring six straight goals to end the game,” Schlossman said. “Considering all of the circumstances, it was just a stunning conclusion to the game.”