Proximity fuels rivalry between North Dakota, Minnesota

Posted: April 11, 2014

NICK MATTSON'S first memory of one of college hockey's greatest rivalries dates to when he was in fourth or fifth grade. Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard pulled a North Dakota player's jersey over his head, skated up the ice and banged in a rebound to win the game.

Raised in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, Mattson was a Minnesota fan back then. As were - and are - all of his friends. But a few years later, a trip to the Golden Gophers' Mariucci Arena to see a game featuring UND's Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie started to change that. Mattson now plays defense for North Dakota.

"I've definitely taken some heat over the years," he noted yesterday.

This week, the text messages Mattson has received from buddies back home have read something to the effect of, "Good luck, but go Gophers!" As those around Minnesota and North Dakota's men's ice hockey programs tell it, this is Duke-North Carolina on ice. Changes in conference affiliation might have robbed them of a regular-season meeting for the first time in 67 seasons, but tonight at the Wells Fargo Center, these programs will renew their longstanding, bitter rivalry, with a trip to the national championship game on the line. It will be the 282nd meeting of the school, separated by 315 miles.

"It's too big to just brush aside and say it's not a factor," said Mattson, one of four Minnesota natives on North Dakota's roster. "Kids in that area of the Midwest just grow up idolizing college hockey, and, from the moment you start playing, you know about Minnesota-North Dakota."

"It's not just one school vs. another school. It's a whole community vs. community. Kids grow up hating the other school."

Proximity and former shared membership in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference have something to do with it. So, too, does each program's storied history. North Dakota has seven national titles, Minnesota five. As North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol pointed out yesterday: "Most rivalries are born out of two successful teams playing a lot of high-level games against each other . . . They're not born when you're playing a game and you're both out of the playoffs."

Minnesota, the No. 1 seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, owns the edge in the all-time series, 137-129-15. The teams first met during the 1947-48 season, which was only North Dakota's second fielding a varsity team. The NCAA Tournament has been the backdrop for four previous meetings, including the 1979 national title game and the 2005 Frozen Four semifinals.

For fans, coaches and players of either side, it surely felt as if something was missing during this past regular season. Meeting tonight, on the sport's biggest stage, is fitting.

"Even though we didn't play them in the regular season, we knew were going to for sure see them in the NCAAs," Minnesota star goaltender Adam Wilcox said. "It's what we want. It's a team we want to play. It's a team that you're going to have to get through every year if you're going to win championships. Whether it's for league championships or the NCAAs, you're going to have to go through North Dakota."

In his hotel room Tuesday night, Hakstol, the North Dakota coach, caught part of a documentary about the annual Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama. He said he was struck by the similarities - the passion of the fans, especially - that one of college football's best rivalries has with this one. Minnesota coach Don Lucia, in his 15th season coaching the Gophers, was among those yesterday who likened Minnesota-UND to college basketball's battles between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils. To perhaps put it in better perspective, Lucia also mentioned Eagles-Giants.

"The rivalry at times is fierce," Lucia said. "But at the same time, if you talk to the coaches and players, for the most part, it's been respectful. I think there is a lot of respect on both sides of it. Those games usually bring out the best."

Many of the players know one another from various hockey circles. Several, such as Mattson, were recruited by both programs. It's somewhat rare, however, that a player who grew up in the Gophers' backyard ends up in Grand Forks, N.D, but Mattson fell for UND's small-town feel and state-of-the art rink. Minnesota's Reilly brothers, Mike, Connor and Ryan, also hail from Chanhassen and are close friends of Mattson's.

Well, close friends on a normal Thursday.

"We're obviously best of friends," Mattson said, "but not this week."

On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

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