Examining the best rivalries in Women’s D-I

This weekend, No. 1 Wisconsin heads to Minneapolis for the 63rd and 64th meetings in a rivalry that is in its 13th season. With the host Gophers currently No. 2 in the country, this may appear at first glance to be at or near the top of the list of premier rivalries in country.

Before delving deeper into that topic, let’s examine what factors make a good rivalry.

Obviously, it should be competitive. Mercyhurst and Robert Morris may share a state and conference and play a minimum of four times a season, but if the Lakers always win, then their rivalry will likely never progress beyond its current level.

The teams should face each other on a regular basis. Harvard and Minnesota met in the Frozen Four for three straight seasons, including twice in the championship, and intensity was growing. They didn’t play over the next three seasons, and by the time a series was resumed, Sarah Vaillancourt was the only player remaining from either roster. New Hampshire and Minnesota-Duluth met in three straight NCAA tournaments from 2008 to 2010, but one has to go back to December of 2000 to find a regular-season series, so nothing builds. Harvard and Mercyhurst played a classic three-overtime thriller in the quarterfinal round of 2005; the teams haven’t faced off since.

Conversely, a single season can go a long way toward building a rivalry. North Dakota and Bemidji State competed seven times a year ago, with the final battle going to overtime to decide whose season would end. The range of emotions experienced can lay a foundation of incentive for future encounters.

The games should matter. That importance can take on many forms. Often, the combatants joust over some conference prize:  the championship, home ice, or a playoff spot. Higher-ranked teams have more rewards to covet, such as advancement in the PairWise rankings or national polls.

Anything that adds extra flavor is a bonus, from regional proximity to players or coaches with ties to both programs. Initially, the intensity can bleed over from other sports at the schools, but eventually, the hockey rivalry will need to be able to stand on its own.

By the same token, these new rivalries aren’t required to compete with established ones in football, basketball, men’s hockey, or whatever. Our game doesn’t have equivalent fan bases; so be it. The teams and the fans that do exist don’t need to read about it in the newspaper or see it announced on television constantly to know that the rivalry exists. They’ve experienced it.

There are a number of rivalries that show promise, but aren’t quite there yet. Cornell and Mercyhurst has been great over the last three seasons, before which they hadn’t faced each other in a while. There were 10 meetings in the Lakers’ early years, and the Big Red never won. The next few years shall demonstrate whether Cornell versus Mercyhurst deserves a circle on every schedule or was merely a brief flare.

Boston College and Boston University may develop along the lines of what their men’s programs have, but BU has only been relevant for a short time, and for much of that, New Hampshire was the team drawing the focus of every other conference member. This season, nothing distinguishes the Eagles and Terriers from any other clash of Boston teams.

All that said, what are some of the best rivalries?

New Hampshire and Providence
The Wildcats and Friars have tangled 130 times, dating back to the 1976-77 season, with the former enjoying a 73-45-12 advantage. Their current league, Hockey East, has existed for nine years, and UNH has claimed six regular-season crowns and four tournament trophies. Providence has two season titles and three playoff championships.

That’s pretty good when one considers that the heyday of the programs occurred much earlier. Over the four seasons from the fall of 1977 to the spring of 1981, the Wildcats won 72 of their 73 games. The one blemish was a 6-6 tie with Providence. When they finally lost the next season, it came at the hands of the Friars. Another one-loss season for UNH followed, before the Wildcats fell four times in 1983-84, all the losses against PC. UNH lost three games in 1984-85, and the Friars were the victor each time. When a program loses but nine games over eight seasons, and eight of those setbacks are inflicted by a single opponent, how can a fierce rivalry not develop.

Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin
Just as the Wildcats and Friars were the premier teams in the early days of the sport, Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth are the kingpins in recent history. Consider that over the previous six seasons, they’ve combined to claim four WCHA season championships, plus six WCHA tournaments and six NCAA championships, with the Badgers taking the majority of those — three, four, and four respectively. The two have collided in the NCAA tournament in four of the past five seasons, with Wisconsin triumphing three times.

In the head-to-head history, UMD clings to a 26-25-11 edge in a rivalry that has come a long way since the Bulldogs emphatically grabbed the first contest back in 1999, outshooting Wisconsin 58-10 en route to an 8-1 stomping. UMD punctuated a sweep of the four-game season series with a 14-1 massacre, adding a level of animosity to the early years.

Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth
Over the first six years of the WCHA’s existence, the Bulldogs and Gophers combined to win all six WCHA season and tournament titles, as well as each national championship. It was only natural that a rivalry would develop eventually between two programs that were in each other’s way so often, but this series was contentious from the first drop of the puck. Two of the Gophers’ stars transferred to Duluth before the season started, and UMD came to the Twin Cities and swept a pair of one-goal games. The Bulldogs held on to win that first WCHA season title by a point and shut out Minnesota in the WCHA championship, before the Gophers salvaged the last laugh by defeating UMD in a national semifinal and earning the final AWCHA national title.

The head-to-head encounters remain as competitive as ever, with the Gophers holding a 30-23-6 advantage. However, Wisconsin’s emergence has taken some of the luster from the games, as the two Minnesota schools are now frequently playing for second place rather than first.

Dartmouth and Harvard
Cornell has been the boss of ECAC Hockey of late, but for many years before that, it was a second-division team. St. Lawrence and Brown were frequently in the picture, but Harvard and Dartmouth appeared most frequently when it was time to award conference laurels. Each roster was framed around Olympians, with names like Botterill, Ruggiero, Chu, and Vaillancourt on one side and Apps, Piper, Weatherston, and Parsons on the other.

Harvard grabbed the regular-season race six times, took five league tournaments and an AWCHA crown, plus qualified for eight NCAA playoffs. Dartmouth was a level behind, winning three season championships, four conference postseason prizes, and advancing to seven NCAAs. Often, there was bad blood between the combatants, and the penalty minutes and fan rhetoric would spike up when they clashed.

Clarkson and St. Lawrence
What these two programs lack in history, they make up in geography. They’re not situated as closely as BC and BU, but where college hockey can get lost in the bustle of Boston, the air is quiet enough in upstate New York that one can open a window on one campus and seemingly hear the sound of a goal horn blasting in a rival’s rink.

For the time being, this conflict is a bit of what might have been. St. Lawrence was an established national power, Clarkson was knocking on the door of contention, and then coaches Paul Flanagan and Rick Seeley left for other jobs, some momentum was lost, and the Saints versus Golden Knights rivalry lost some steam.

Wisconsin and Minnesota
Where does all of that leave the Badgers and Gophers? The rivalry has certainly been balanced enough to warrant mention. Minnesota’s lead of 29-26-7 in the all-time mark shrinks each year. The Gophers dominated the first six seasons, and now the Badgers are returning the favor. Twice they’ve met in the NCAA tournament and Wisconsin triumphed. The teams have squared off nine times in the WCHA tournament, including six finals. Minnesota owned the first four results; the last five have gone to the Badgers.

I’ve watched all of the postseason tilts of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the majority of the regular season games as well. The biggest criticism I’d have is that the games tend to be a little dull, as compared to either team’s clashes with UMD and other contenders. Too often, one team will be a bit flat, and it is rare that both are playing well on the same day. Even some games that look great in the box score, such as the Minnesota overtime victory in the 2005 WCHA Championship, are rather uninspiring for long stretches in person. The Gophers have their best team since the days when they routinely came out on top in this matchup, so perhaps they are ready to step up and at a minimum provide the Badgers with a worthy foil.

Others?

My experience with many of the pairings around the country is all too limited, and it is difficult to appreciate the flavor from a box score, recap, or even a webcast. Feel free to chime in with your own opinions on matches that deserve a mention, and what makes them notable.

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