The Team They Love To Hate

When University of Minnesota coach Don Lucia opted to leave his post at Colorado College in favor of taking the helm of the Golden Gophers, one of his counterparts saw the writing on the wall — or perhaps the writing on the USCHO Message Board.

“I remember when I was thinking of taking this position, I had another colleague in my league call me and say, ‘Why would you want that job? Everybody likes you now. If you go there, everybody’s going to hate you,'” Lucia recalls.

While this might not be true of Lucia personally, it does appear to be the case with the Minnesota program. A recent USCHO poll asked readers to vote on the team that they most love to hate. The Golden Gophers were the decisive winners, garnering 27 percent of the votes — substantially more than second-place North Dakota.

But why? Well, it depends on who you ask. We created a USCHO message board thread and asked fans to weigh in on why so many view the Gophers as the “rodents”, or worse. This led to 262 responses in just one week. As you might expect, Gopher fans pointed to many positive reasons for the results, while detractors had a darker interpretation.

Mike Bowman, 29, of Eagan, Minn. offered several highly articulate posts showing the upside of the Gophers being the team folks love to hate. “Much of it is jealousy,” Bowman wrote, citing the team’s great facility in Mariucci Arena, their obsequious presence on the airwaves, and their steady stream of highly touted recruits that enables the team to reload rather than rebuild.

“And of course, I would be remiss to not mention the success of the program,” Bowman added. “Multiple WCHA regular season and tournament titles, five NCAA titles, numerous runner-ups and Frozen Four berths, numerous NCAA tournament appearances, over 1000 victories, a winning record against the vast majority of teams in college hockey (I believe two of the exceptions are BU and Maine)… All of these things mean high visibility, high expectations, and a lot of seething hatred from opposing fans.”

Lucia naturally agreed with my summary of Bowman’s assessment. “We’re the lucky winner,” Lucia said when I told him of the poll results. “Well, that must say a lot of good things about us.

“It’s a combination of all of the above. I think it’s not hate at times; it’s envy of success. I think you touched on a lot of it. There’s a lot of pride in the state of Minnesota; hockey is obviously really big here, and the University of Minnesota has had a lot of success over the years. It’s like anything: When you’ve had a lot of success, and you win a lot, people get tired of that who aren’t from our state.”

I root for Minnesota to lose every game. I laugh when they lose embarassingly. I get behind whatever team is playing them that week…

— David Krawczyk – Wisconsin Alum

Lucia added another good point. While Michigan and Michigan State or BU and BC have each other as rivals first and foremost, any number of teams can pick Minnesota as their archrival.

“Fans are passionate,” Lucia said. “In our case, if you take a poll around the WCHA of who your biggest rival is, for probably Mankato and St. Cloud and Duluth and Wisconsin and North Dakota, it’s probably us. So you have that animosity right away. And for CC and Denver, we might be second. Maybe even Anchorage. I know one thing: When we go to other people’s arenas, there’s a reason they charge more for our games than for other people’s games.”

Just as baseball fans across the country got fed up with New York Yankee pennants and championships throughout the 1950s, and similar to the glee that many college football fans are getting from watching Notre Dame struggle through a terrible year, there are many fans who would relish a losing record for the Gophers this year. After all, that has only happened twice in the last 20 seasons.

Yet the naysayers are quick to say that they are not so much envious of Minnesota’s success as irritated by the arrogance of many members of the Minnesota fan base.

“Why do I love to hate Minnesota?” asked David Krawczyk, 27, of Madison, Wis. “Its the arrogance of the fans. The experiences I have had in the Xcel and in the Mariucci are by far the worst that I’ve had in any opposing rink or ‘neutral sites’. Even worse is the behavior of some of the fans when they travel. By no means am I saying every Gopher fan acts this way, but enough do to really stand out and overshadow the many reasonable fans.”

Perhaps these experiences led to Krawcyzk capturing the feelings of many opposing fans in Gopher territory.

“As a UW fan and alum, it is one of the things that is always a constant,” Krawcyzk said. “I root for Minnesota to lose every game. I laugh when they lose embarassingly. I get behind whatever team is playing them that week and if I’m watching the game at home on TV, I become one of the biggest ______ (insert team here) fans in the country if only for one night. My two favorite teams are the Badgers and whoever is playing the Gophers that night.

“Under zero circumstances could I ever root for Minnesota. If a Gopher victory was the only thing that could get UW into the NCAA tournament, I would still root for the Gophers to lose, and lose badly.”

In response to a few fans who claimed that they basically would hold their noses and root for an enemy team playing against Minnessota, Bowman scoffed at the notion that he would root for an archrival under any circumstances. “No real Gopher fan would ever cheer for UND,” Bowman wrote. “If UND plays Wisconsin, we’d cheer for both teams to somehow lose the game.”

Some feel that Minnesota has more than their share of fair-weather fans. Donald Dunlop, 46, of Anchorage, Alaska weighed in on that front. “The ‘hatred’. (I’d say here that hatred is the wrong adjective; we don’t hate them … we are sickened by them) instead comes from the swagger and the chest thumping following their success,” Dunlop wrote to me in an e-mail.

“The few that act like they’ve been there before are simply outnumbered by the jersey popping crowing ‘bandwagoners’ that show up when success seems evident. These people are all about proclaiming dominance and decrying everyone else as inferior when the Gophers win; but they are also the first ‘fans’ to express that the sky is falling when their team slips up.”

Perhaps those who have it toughest are non-Gopher fans who live in the heart of Minnesota hockey country. Minnesota resident Kent Bergene, a North Dakota native, offered this perspective. “I’ve lived in the Twin Cities for 26 years now (graduated from UND in 1981), and I would characterize most locals are ‘blithely’ ignorant, about the game of college hockey,” Bergene said.

“Minnesotans are supremely smug about how their team is the best, yet totally unaware of the facts and the reality. This is all walks and all ages, with the sole exception of posters on this board, who are generally as smug, yet smarter.”

That said, Bergene has found a way of warding off Gophermania in the office. “Yes, I have a NCAA Ice Hockey fact book at my office (because I got tired of arguing with these know-nothings). Yes, my daughters (UND fans to the core) trade trash talk with their little friends, who must have been born smug and ignorant.

“Like the transformation in a sci-fi mutant thriller, the amazing part is that when the topic changes away from Gopher hockey, these mutants become terrifically normal ‘above average in a Lake Wobegon sort of way’ people that are actually wonderful to live with.”

Various other fans complained about how the arrogance of Minnesota fans was most embodied by the concept of “pride on ice,” referring to how the program not only recruited Minnesota natives exclusively for years but claimed superiority to, say, North Dakota or Wisconsin for failing to do the same — an impossibility given how much less youth hockey is played in those states.

So the question remains: Can’t we all just get along as college hockey fans? Lucia acknowledges that opposing crowds are much more negative toward Minnesota than to his previous programs, but he also was hard-pressed to believe that Gopher fans were worse in their behavior than those at other programs. “Rest assured that I’ve been at CC and I’ve been at Alaska, and I’ve been at Minnesota, and when I go with Minnesota’s team to another facility, the way we’re treated, it’s amazing how different it is — from vulgarity to everything.

“I wouldn’t know that because I’m obviously not sitting in the stands,” qualified Lucia when told about complaints I had heard about how visiting fans had been treated at Mariucci. “You certainly hope that’s not the case. I know that we go to another facility in this league, and the whole student section is chanting ‘F the Gophers’ in unison and out loud. I’ve never heard anything like that from our fans.

“I know there’s some Minnesota fans who don’t even like going to another facility in the league — I don’t want to name names — because of how they’re treated. I know my wife even had that experience last year: There’s one facility in our league she’ll never go back.”

That said, Lucia’s biggest point was that all school administrators should be taking responsibility to get crass profanity out of arenas or any other exchanges. “We’ve got to get the vulgarity out of it. To me, that’s on the administration to get that out of it. I think it’s great when fans are into it, but I hate the vulgarity, whether it’s fan or fan or on opposing players. That has no place.”

Lucia agreed that the situation is a vicious circle. People resent the Gophers’ success, and they respond negatively to the team and their fans, thereby increasing the chip on the shoulder that some Gopher fans may feel when interacting with other fans. “It’s easier to point the finger at the other person. Personally I don’t think any visiting fans should be disrespected by hometown fans no matter where you’re playing.”

On a brighter note, Lucia absolutely loves it when opposing fans get creative in expressing their passionate dislike of his program. He laughed heartily when I read one post from a reader who said that while he not a fan of the Sioux, he rooted for T.J. Oshie to score 15 goals when North Dakota played a pair against the Gophers.

Lucia also received a memorable yuletide greeting last season. “Last year at Christmas, I got a Christmas card from a bunch of Mankato fans in Holy Cross jerseys, giving me the finger,” Lucia said. “I laughed so hard.

“I called Troy [Jutting, coach of Minnesota State] and said, ‘This is great.’ It was just a fun thing, and that’s the way I took it. I mean, there must have been 15 people, and these were adults. It was just ‘Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Section so-and-so’ and here they are with Holy Cross jerseys on, giving me the finger! I literally broke out laughing as soon as I saw it. That was a classic. To me, that’s good-natured fun.”