For 20 years Mariucci Arena has hosted Western Collegiate Hockey Conference games between the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and a dozen different opponents. With Minnesota closing out Bemidji State University this weekend with a sweep in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs, the arena staff can start to remove the conference logos and make room for Big Ten Hockey.
The first WCHA conference game played in the “new” Mariucci Arena was back on Oct. 30, 1993 against St. Cloud State University. The Gophers tied the Huskies 4-4. A ho-hum start to the season for the Gophers who went on to win the conference tournament that season.
The weekend before that tie to SCSU, Minnesota was swept at Colorado College against the Tigers. Don Lucia was the head coach of CC in his first year at the helm in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The league has changed a bit over the years and Mariucci Arena has been a gracious host to hundreds of conference and non-conference games in the span of two decades. Many of them Golden Gopher wins.
But the arrival of the Big Ten logo comes with much scrutiny from hockey fans not only in Minneapolis, but all over the country.
Arguably the best conference in the nation top to bottom, the WCHA that Gopher fans have known since the league’s inception in 1951 is about to be busted wide open. The Gophers will leave the WCHA with Wisconsin and join CCHA schools Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State next fall.
The Big Ten will also welcome Penn State to its first hockey conference at the Division I level. The Nittany Lions in their first year currently as an independent D1 team are just under .500 on the year. That includes competition against traveling club teams from colleges across the country.
The new Big Ten Hockey Conference will be the smallest major conference in the nation when it begins next year. The conference schedule has not been released yet, but except wry smiles on the faces of fans at Mariucci Arena next year when league games begin.
Rivals that have helped pack Mariucci for years like North Dakota, SCSU, Minnesota Duluth, Denver, and Colorado College will need invitations to play there in the future as non-conference opponents.
Do you really think there will be 10,000 fans in the building on a Thursday night against Michigan State in early November?
Time will tell and Gopher fans should try to remember the found memories of the building and the triumphs the team had there in the WCHA. In 20 years, Minnesota has never lost more than four straight games in Mariucci Arena. That has happened four total times and never for the same season.
The best example I can think of the energy that a WCHA game can produce at Mariucci Arena came back on November 4, 2004. A game winning goal scored on a penalty shot by Danny Irmen on a Friday night in front of over 10k warm bodies. The Gophers were playing Wisconsin and even though the two teams will hold hands into the Big Ten next season, the WCHA was dominant that year.
The 2005 Frozen Four featured an All-WCHA field. Minnesota, UND, CC, and Denver took over the tournament with the Denver Pioneers eventually winning the crown. It was the first time in NCAA history, in any Division level, in any sport, men’s or women’s, that the four semifinalists all came from the same conference.
I challenge Sparty to try and get this reaction from Gopher fans this fall at Mariucci Arena.
Will the Nittany Lions come to Minneapolis with this amount of animosity?
I think not.