Column: Big Ten hockey will be good after some getting used to, ya feel me?

by Samuel Gordon

WCHA or Big Ten?

It didn’t seem to make much difference this past weekend. Minnesota versus Wisconsin is still Minnesota versus Wisconsin.

Last weekend’s series between the rivals was the first for both teams in the new Big Ten hockey conference.

“I don’t think it’ll really hit us until we play Ohio State or Michigan State,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said of Big Ten play.

In 2011, the Big Ten announced it would form a hockey conference, triggering a domino effect that led to the disbanding of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association as we knew it.

That conference featured top rivalries in college hockey, and naturally, there was disdain toward the decision to dissolve.

But in the long run, the shift to the Big Ten will be good for the Gophers.

Minnesota will benefit from the Big Ten’s national brand without abandoning the long-time rivalries that made the WCHA special.

The Gophers have already played former WCHA counterparts Bemidji State, Minnesota State-Mankato and Minnesota-Duluth this season.

And later in the season, they’ll play in the inaugural North Star College Cup — an annual four-team tournament that will feature Minnesota’s Division I programs.

While fans might point to the absence of archenemy North Dakota, even it will be back on the schedule in 2016-17. And the three-year hiatus could intensify the rivalry.

But the WCHA is history, and this season in the Big Ten, the points mean a little bit more. There are 20 Big Ten conference games this year, as opposed to the 28 each team had in the WCHA last year.

“There are only six teams [in the Big Ten] right now,” junior forward Seth Ambroz said. “They’re all good teams. There’s some depth in the league. … [So] every point counts now.”

That increased competition could help to forge new rivalries parallel to those that the conference’s schools have in other sports.

But for now, old rivalries are still in full swing — and that was obvious Saturday at the Minnesota-Wisconsin game.

Gophers junior captain Kyle Rau said he couldn’t tell the difference from playing in the Big Ten, because both teams were in the WCHA last year.

While Thanksgiving break subdued the student section, the rest of the crowd was as raucous as ever — especially in the third period.

Both teams traded scores and penalties before Ambroz’s late game-winner clinched a sweep and six points in the conference standings.

“We can be in any conference,” head coach Don Lucia said Saturday. “It doesn’t matter. We’re playing for our rivalry. Now that we left the WCHA, I’m sure this rivalry will start to heat back up.”

Well said, coach.

Ya feel me?