If not a sea-change, maybe a harborside change

John Gilbert

UMD's Parker Mackay scored with an overtime backhander before tumbling to the ice with a 4-3 victory over the Golden Gophers at AMSOIL Arena. Photo credit: John Gilbert
UMD's Parker Mackay scored with an overtime backhander before tumbling to the ice with a 4-3 victory over the Golden Gophers at AMSOIL Arena. Photo credit: John Gilbert

It was just like old times when the University of Minnesota hockey team rolled into Duluth to take on the UMD Bulldogs.

Then again, maybe it was completely different.

As usual, any Gopher-Bulldog hockey game is the biggest game of the year. But there were several signs of the differences, almost like an evolutionary change.  For 50 years, UMD’s hopeful and challenging Bulldogs and their legion of dedicated fans have faced up well to the hockey games against the Gophers. For many of those games over many of those years, the UMD side was practically shrouded by the feeling that if they play their best, and overachieve, maybe they can steal a victory.

But in a lot of those games, you got the distinct feeling the Bulldogs were playing their best, but wondering just how they were going to lose this time.

The Golden Gophers, on the other hand, played with an air of confidence that often spilled over to a perceived arrogance, maybe not among the players, but certainly among their fans and big-city media types. On their side, games against UMD might be tight and tense and filled with pressure, but the Gophers had this air of “how are we going to win this time.”

Joey Anderson (13) scored the tying goal against fallen Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn in the season-opening UMD victory. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Joey Anderson (13) scored the tying goal against fallen Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn in the season-opening UMD victory. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Under those circumstances, when the Bulldogs did beat the Gophers, it was an emotional peak to any season. That goes back 50 years, to when they first built the Duluth Arena, and the Gophers showed up to give the Bulldogs an opponent for their first WCHA game in their new arena. They dropped the puck, and Keith (Huffer) Christiansen turned into the Pied Piper of Duluth, leading Gophers by the bunch away from the net so he could feed linemates for easy goals. It was sudden, and thorough, and when it was over, UMD had an 8-1 victory for the ages, and Huffer had a school record six assists — a single-game record that still stands.

There were others, of course, but when Glen Sonmor gave way to Herb Brooks as Gophers coach, the Gophers rose up to NCAA hockey elite status, and they’ve stayed there ever since. To their credit, the Bulldogs improved their lot, possibly because of the incentive of catching up to their arch-rivals. But an interesting thing happened, after the Gophers and their Big Ten buddies left the WCHA to form their own Big Ten hockey conference.

UMD caught on with North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, St. Cloud State, Miami of Ohio and Western Michigan in an entire elite league, where every game, every weekend, has become playoff-like. It seems as though the Big Ten was weakened as Michigan followed Wisconsin and Michigan State into a few down years, where they either fell from, or nearly fell from, elite status. The Gophers stayed up there, but they no longer had to play their best to get past their Big Ten foes, and they got out of the habit of playing with the intensity that games against UMD or North Dakota or St. Cloud State demanded.

UMD sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff (5) moved in to score for a 2-0 UMD lead over Michigan Tech, although it didn't hold up in the Ice Breaker final. Photo credit: John Gilbert
UMD sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff (5) moved in to score for a 2-0 UMD lead over Michigan Tech, although it didn't hold up in the Ice Breaker final. Photo credit: John Gilbert

The Gophers brought a loaded lineup to AMSOIL Arena for the Ice Breaker seson-opening tournament, loaded with high draft picks and USA Development Camp prospects. Their once all-Minnesota team included a dozen players from Minnesota, but also players from Stockholm, California, and River Falls, and the hotshot from Grand Rapids is from Grand Rapids Michigan, not Minnesota.

That doesn’t matter, of course, in the contemporary view of the Gophers, but the charisma of that all-Minnesota magic is gone. It was a great game, however, with Joey Anderson scoring the tying goal for UMD in the third period, and then Parker Mackay moving in from the left corner and fitting a backhander past Gopher goaltender Eric Schierhorn at 1:45 of overtime, moments before tumbling to the ice in a sort-of early season victory celebration.

It was duly noted that the victory was UMD’s eighth straight over Minnesota, going back two years. Overlooked was that the Bulldogs outshot Minnesota 44-21, and that six UMD freshmen — four of them defensemen — played at an amazingly high level for their first official college game. Repeatedly, the youthful showed tremendous rink-rat skills and escaped from the UMD zone to generate attacks.

 It’s true that UMD lost a tough 4-3 game to Michigan Tech in the Saturday final, which was great for Tech, and not a major problem for the Bulldogs, who outshot the Huskies 36-18.

But it didn’t matter. UMD might have problems with a tenacious Bemidji State outfit Friday in Bemidji and Saturday at AMSOIL, but that won’t matter, either.

What does matter is that the Bulldogs have now achieved hockey’s equivalent of mountain-climbing nirvana for reaching the peak. Watching the Gopher-UMD battle, it occurred to me that the teams have evolved to where now UMD is the elite team, and the Gophers are no longer the pursued — they are now the pursuers.

Having attended both universities, and written about both of them through their best seasons, my objective opinion is that without arrogance or cockiness, it is now UMD that plays with confident assurance against Minnesota. Now it is the Bulldogs who keep playing with poise, confident they will find a way to win, and it seemed that for the eighth straight game, it is the Golden Gophers who now look as though they’re trying hard, but possibly cloaked with wondering how they’re going to lose this time.