MINNEAPOLIS – The North Dakota-Minnesota hockey series was a significant casualty of the football-driven conference realignment that interrupted so many classic rivalries across the country.
As if prearranged to mollify fans frustrated by the first regular season in 67 years without this border-state matchup, the rivalry will be revived at the Frozen Four in Philadelphia. Those close to the clash felt like it was supposed to happen.
Minnesota assistant coach Grant Potulny told goalie Adam Wilcox so earlier this season.
"He was like, 'We're for sure going to end up seeing them in the NCAAs at some point,'" Wilcox said. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, we're guaranteed to do it.' Sure enough, we did. Everyone's excited about it."
The NCAA semifinal will be the 284th between these Midwest college hockey behemoths. Minnesota has a slim 138-130-15 lead. Gophers coach Don Lucia's record against North Dakota since he took over the program? That's 22-22-4.
"A great scenario, I think, for college hockey. I'm sure this is what everybody had planned all along," said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, a UND player in the 1990s.
North Dakota has seven NCAA championships; Minnesota has five. They've appeared in the title game a total of 23 times, including together in 1979 when the Gophers won it all. UND beat Minnesota in the national semifinals in 2005.
The teams faced off every regular season from 1948 to 2013. The formation of the Big Ten was the first fallen domino, taking Minnesota with it. North Dakota led the next exodus, from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, to create the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The current WCHA is barely recognizable and the first year for sport's western reaches looked strange. Attendance at all three conference tournaments was sparse for most games.
"If you ask any Gopher hockey fan what the biggest disappointment in scheduling is, I think the majority would say not playing North Dakota," said Lou Nanne, a Minnesota alumni and a captain on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team before a long career with the NHL's North Stars.
North Dakota was the only WCHA team anywhere close to Minneapolis. The sustained success of both programs took it from there. A litany of playoff games, fights on the ice and overtime thrillers added yet more fuel.
North Dakota actually recruited Nanne first. He wanted to be a dentist, though, and that curriculum wasn't offered there. Meanwhile, coach Bob May left UND, moved to Minneapolis and recommended the kid from Canada to Gophers coach John Mariucci.
Since then, many more recruiting races have further sharpened the edges.
In the northwest corner of Minnesota, hockey-heavy towns like Roseau, Thief River Falls and Warroad are much closer to North Dakota's campus in Grand Forks than to the state's flagship university that's a six-hour drive away. T.J. Oshie, the U.S. Olympic and St. Louis Blues star, picked UND out of Warroad High School. Potulny, who helped lead the Gophers to national championships in 2002 and 2003, grew up in Grand Forks.
North Dakota used to be the Fighting Sioux, which the NCAA deemed "hostile and abusive" toward Native Americans and effected a ban in 2012 following a long dispute. For all the typical taunting between the two fan bases, though, the rivalry isn't as bitter as that nickname controversy became.
"They don't hate each other as much as they need each other," said Judd Zulgad, a sports talk show host for 1500 ESPN radio in the Twin Cities. "I think they thrive off the fact they have this really great back and forth. It's such a niche, regional sport that proximity does matter. You can't just say the Gophers are going to have a really good rivalry with Michigan and that's going to replace North Dakota."
Dave Berger, who runs the SiouxSports.com blog, said North Dakota fans are "split 50-50" about which was a better feeling: barely making the tournament in the first place or seeing top-seeded Minnesota lined up with UND in the bracket.
"They've certainly surprised a lot of people to get to this point. There's talk that this is a bonus," Berger said. "But these two teams could play in my backyard and you would sell 8,000 tickets."
They will play a two-game series in Minnesota during the 2016-17 season and at North Dakota the following year.
For now, a game for a berth in the national championship game will have to do.
"I think everyone in the back of their mind was kind of hoping it would happen, somewhere in the tournament," said UND forward Stephane Pattyn. "So why not the biggest game of our season, you know?"
Associated Press Writer Dave Kolpack contributed to this report from Grand Forks, N.D.