Minnesota hosts a pair of former WCHA foes

The Spartans and Wolverines each spent 22 years in the WCHA.

by Mark Remme

The American sports tradition on Thanksgiving weekend might revolve around football, but for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team it’s become a ritual of reuniting with former rivals.

The Gophers will take part in the 14th annual College Hockey Showcase this weekend at Mariucci Arena.

Minnesota faces Michigan State on Friday and Michigan on Saturday in two 7:07 p.m. matchups with former members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

The Spartans and Wolverines each spent 22 seasons in the WCHA, from 1959-60 through 1980-81, before moving to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association following the 1981 season.

Coach Don Lucia said that historical link makes the annual Thanksgiving weekend matchup especially sweet for Gophers fans.

“It’s fun because a lot of fans here do remember when Michigan and Michigan State were in the WCHA,” Lucia said. “It’s a great time and a great tradition.”

But, despite those links, the past shouldn’t overshadow the present. Top-ranked Minnesota (10-1-2 overall, 6-0-2 WCHA) will face two of its most formidable opponents thus far this season.

Michigan State and Michigan sit at No. 6 and No. 7, respectively, in the national polls, and boast significant talent on both ends of the ice.

Michigan senior forward T.J. Hensick leads the nation with 18 assists on the year. He has 22 points on the year, placing him tied for fifth in the country in scoring with teammate Kevin Porter.

In the crease, Michigan State sophomore goalie Jeff Lerg’s two shutouts on the year put him in a tie for most by a netminder this season.

Lucia said both teams have top athletes and the early season matchups should give the Gophers a gauge on where they stand nationally at this point in the season.

“We’re young and we’re growing as a team,” Lucia said. “It gives us a good indication where we’re at as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned.”

Playing Top 10 caliber opponents like the Spartans (6-3-1, 4-3-1 CCHA) and Wolverines (9-3-0, 6-2-0) couldn’t come at a better time for Minnesota. The Gophers still boast the nation’s longest unbeaten streak -12 games – and stand unbeaten in conference play.

Freshman forward Ryan Flynn said the team is very confident right now, but it’s too early to tell how the season will play out.

“We just want to keep going out there and getting points in the WCHA,” he said. “If we continue to do that, good things will happen.”

Minnesota’s conference-best scoring offense – 4.55 goals per game coming into last weekend’s series against Wisconsin – gritted out two low-scoring affairs with the Badgers to earn its second sweep of its Border Battle rival at home in three years.

While a 2-1 win on Saturday and a 3-1, scrappy victory on Sunday didn’t show off the explosive scoring Minnesota has shown throughout the season, it showed a different element the Gophers haven’t seen in recent years.

Minnesota fought through adversity and found the net in unorthodox ways. While finesse-oriented teams of the past might have lost close contests, this team fought to put the puck in the net.

Senior defenseman Mike Vannelli attributed those hard-fought goals to the team’s work ethic.

“You’re not always going to be able to win a game scoring pretty goals,” he said. “It’s nice when your talented players can go out there and make a spectacular play but you can’t count on that every night. The only thing you can count on is how hard you can work.”

And in a weekend where the Gophers can’t help but respect the tradition of the past, Minnesota will try to build on a well-balanced, hard-working future.

“(Michigan State and Michigan are) always tough,” Vannelli said. “They’re always up there in the top of the nation and they’re in the national tournament at the end of the year so it will be a good test for us.”

-C.J. Spang contributed to this report