Moments, memories come back when it’s Minnesota-North Dakota week

Jake Marto of North Dakota and Minnesota’s Aaron Ness both grew up in the Upper Midwest following the WCHA, so they understand the significance of the schools’ rivalry.

Marto, a Grand Forks, N.D., native, went to high school across town from Ralph Engelstad Arena and Ness grew up in Northwest Minnesota, where there’s a mix of Fighting Sioux and Gophers fans. But unlike so many kids who saw the rivalry from the seats or in front of the TV, these guys grew up to live it.

North Dakota and Minnesota play in the 2007 WCHA Final Five. (Skip Strandberg)
North Dakota and Minnesota play in the 2007 WCHA Final Five (photo: Skip Strandberg).

“It’s always a weekend you have circled on your calendar,” Marto said. “It’s exciting — the whole week and the buildup to the games. It’s exciting how the whole town gets behind you. The intensity seems so much higher than other games. Every game counts, but this one is a little bit more.”

Added UND senior Derek LaPoint: “I was a Midwestern kid so I went to the Final Fives when I was a kid so I know the history of [the rivalry]. You don’t get a real taste of it until you’re here.”

It’s a rivalry rivaled by few others across college hockey. Take the intensity and impact of body checks of any other matchup in the WCHA, multiply it and that’s what you get in the UND-Minnesota series.

The only series of the regular season between UND and Minnesota starts at 7:35 p.m. CST Friday and 7:05 p.m. Saturday at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

“It’s a different game because both teams are so at each other,” said Ness, a junior defenseman from Roseau, Minn., whose dad played 19 games for the Sioux from 1982 to 1985. “There’s always a lot at stake when we played. Growing up, I could always tell it was a big rivalry. I think my dad’s joined my side and he’s a Gopher guy now.”

The battle goes back to the old barns, whose names were passed on to the present buildings (Mariucci, 1993) (Engelstad, 2001). The names of the people alone dig up memories of the rivalry: the coaches Blais and Woog, the smallest of Hobey Baker Award winners Duncan and Bonin, the goalies Goehring and Hauser.

The rivalry isn’t known by a catchy name and the teams don’t compete for a traveling trophy, but have battled for the Broadmoor Trophy three times. The Final Five championship game meetings between the programs should be engraved in the memories of WCHA junkies.

As a 9-year-old I watched on TV as Peter Armbrust beat Steve DeBus in overtime of the 1997 final. I was in a New York City hotel room when “SportsCenter” named Blake Wheeler’s attempt-to-save-the-Gophers-from-icing-goal the top play of the day. Gophers fans always compare Wheeler’s goal to Neal Broten’s sprawling shot and goal against UND in the 1979 NCAA title game.

Half the fun of Sioux-Gophers games is watching what goes on after the whistle: Charlie Wasley (Minnesota) mixing it up with Kevin McKinnon (UND) and the Gophers’ Scott Bell taking on the Sioux bench in the last season at the “old” Mariucci — look it up on YouTube (about 4:50 in).

More recently after a tie in 2008, Travis Zajac and Tony Lucia got to blows as the final horn blew, Joe Finley subsequently took Wheeler out of the handshake line, and the teams ended up in a standoff at center ice with both coaches on the ice.

“I don’t think there’s much love in our relationship,” said Minnesota senior defenseman Kevin Wehrs. “Every game we play with them is a big game. It’s physical and guys seem to pick up the tempo on both sides.”

Wehrs took a big check from UND’s Matt Frattin in the third game of last season’s WCHA playoffs first-round series when Frattin left his feet to charge Wehrs along the boards. Frattin received a five-minute contact-to-the-head penalty.

“That’s hockey; it’s a rough game and things like that happen,” Wehrs said.

But the hits and the tangles are secondary to wins and losses when the Gophers and Sioux get together, and that’s where the Sioux have a 5-2-3 edge in the last 10 meetings. For years, they battled for the No. 1 spot in the league. UND will look to stay ahead of Denver and Minnesota-Duluth this weekend with the Pioneers and Bulldogs two points back.

“We know it’s going to be intense but we’re here to get four points this weekend,” LaPoint said. “From a national standpoint these are big games for us.”

With seven weeks left in the season, the MacNaughton Cup is probably out of reach for the Gophers, who are eight points behind first-place UND. Minnesota is in sixth place, teetering on the home-ice cutoff for the WCHA playoffs. The Gophers have been on the road for the WCHA first round two out of the last three seasons. Minnesota has never started the playoffs on the road two years in a row under the current format.

“Every point is huge and we just have to focus on getting as many wins as possible,” Ness said.

Gophers goalie Kent Patterson is no longer sharing the crease with senior Alex Kangas, whose career with the Gophers is over after he announced Wednesday he’ll undergo season-ending hip surgery. Patterson (2.50 goals-against average, .918 save percentage) has played the majority of Minnesota’s minutes so he’s seasoned, but he’s playing at Engelstad where he gave up five goals on 43 shots in two games last season. UND averages 3.7 goals per game at the Ralph.

“It’s always been one of those weekends where it’s hard to get tickets because everyone wants to come and watch,” LaPoint said. “We look forward to playing these guys because we only get them for one weekend this year. It makes for a little more intensity and you don’t need a lot to get up for it.”