Every sports league has one: the team opposing fans love to hate.
Major League Baseball has the New York Yankees. In the NFL, it’s the Dallas Cowboys. The NBA’s version is the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans of men’s college basketball have the Duke Blue Devils to cheer against.
That status is conferred by a combination of success and self-confidence — the sense that even when times are bad, a resurgence is just around the corner. The Cowboys have had consecutive 5-11 seasons, but the feeling that they could rebound anytime is always there, driving opposing fans nuts.
An element of geography enhances specific rivalries, especially in college sports. Nebraska and Oklahoma in football, the aforementioned Duke against North Carolina in basketball.
But the true foil is loved by many, hated by more, like Notre Dame football.
In the WCHA, that team is Minnesota.
For many years, the Gophers’ rivalry with Wisconsin was paramount. Their matchups were the circled games on each team’s calendars.
Lately, though, the treasured “Border Battles” — which used to put 17,000 in the seats in Minneapolis’ Target Center — have company on the must-win list. Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves points to location, location, location.
“When you look at the Minnesota schools, there’s so many of them now,” said Eaves. “That may have taken some of the energy out of this rivalry.”
“I think that’s probably true,” agreed Gopher coach Don Lucia. “We’ve got some fierce rivalries with some other schools than Wisconsin.”
In fact, Minnesota might need both hands to count its rivals these days.
Within the WCHA, besides Wisconsin, there’s North Dakota and the “Minnesota schools” Eaves mentioned: Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud and Minnesota State, against which the sense of competition is building year by year.
And Minnesota’s sense of rivalry extends beyond its own league, to teams like Michigan and Michigan State. Both were once WCHA members, and the conflict is preserved via the annual College Hockey Showcase, not to mention the occasional NCAA tournament meeting.
The surest sign of the times might have come during Minnesota’s first-round series against Michigan Tech. The public-address announcer relayed another WCHA score: Wisconsin 5, Minnesota State 4, in the third period.
The Mariucci Arena crowd cheered.
With Wisconsin struggling in recent years, it raises a second point: rivalries are sustained by success.
“Rivalries heat up when both schools are playing well,” said Lucia, “when you’re playing big games.”
On that front, the fact that Minnesota completed a rebuilding period with its fourth NCAA championship last year doesn’t hurt. Ironically, the championship came against Maine, a national power which marks a decade-old 16-1 loss to Minnesota as a turning point for its program.
Luckily for the WCHA, Minnesota is making an effort to preserve that big-game suspense. After losing nearly half of its scoring from last year’s squad — most of that in the form of Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold, All-American John Pohl and the early-departing Jeff Taffe — the Gophers were inexplicably still picked No. 1 in USCHO.com’s preseason poll.
Predictably, Minnesota struggled a bit in the early going, routing Ohio State, but then losing to New Hampshire, Colorado College and Michigan.
Lately, though, a young team is crystallizing. Phenom Thomas Vanek has come just as advertised, leading the WCHA in freshman scoring en route to the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
Just as importantly for Minnesota, the veterans have stepped back up. The return of captain Grant Potulny from injury provided a big boost to the Minnesota power play, long one of its critical strengths.
Coming into the WCHA Final Five, it wasn’t clear that Minnesota was all that playoff-tested, despite the program’s history.
“There were only nine guys in our lineup who played in the Final Five last year, who actually got into games,” said Lucia.
But the team’s leadership shone through in Friday night’s 3-2 semifinal win against Minnesota State, in which Potulny scored a power-play goal early in the third to change the momentum.
The score marked the 16th straight game in which the Gophers have scored with the man-advantage. Vanek then provided the balance by scoring the overtime game-winner, showing Minnesota’s yin and yang of experience.
It’s not good enough for Minnesota, though. Not yet.
“I think we are searching for how good we can be,” said Potulny.
If the Gophers find it, look out.