I wanted to go to the so-called Border Battle not only to witness a classic Midwestern hockey rivalry weekend but also to see up close a pair of teams that are, wittingly or not, positioned at the crux of college hockey's proud past, its pivotal present, and its intriguing future.
Minnesota's college hockey history goes back further than Wisconsin's, but once the Badgers' hockey program was established in 1963 it began trading punches with its neighbor to the west almost right away. Both had legendary coaches: for Minnesota, it was Herb Brooks, himself a former Gopher player, who won three national championships in his seven seasons behind the bench and would ultimately go on to lead the 1980 USA hockey team to a gold medal in the Olympics. Wisconsin's "Badger Bob" Johnson also won three NCAA titles (and later a Stanley Cup with the Penguins), though his most enduring and endearing legacy may be his triumphant statement that "It's a great day for hockey!"1
I wandered around the concourse inside Mariucci Arena looking at the year-by-year team photos dating back to the 1930s. Other than the fabric of the players' sweaters or the cut of the coaches' hats, there was truly little to distinguish the smiling and square-jawed boys of the '40s and '50s with the ones of today. The shaggy hair of the late-'70s teams looked particularly current.
When I arrived at the 21st century I came to within earshot of a dad and his kid, both decked out in Minnesota gear. (There's an apparel store inside the rink that easily rivals anything I've seen at a professional game.) The dad stopped at the 2005-06 team photo that included Toronto's Phil Kessel and Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler and sighed with dramatic regret. "That was God's team," he told his little boy. "They should have won a national championship, but then they got lazy. That was God's team." God's team, it turned out, had gotten upset by Holy Cross in the first round of the tournament;2 the NCAA title that year was ultimately won by … Wisconsin.
Unsurprisingly, both teams have a rich history in the NCAA tournament: Minnesota has qualified more often, but Wisconsin has won more titles. Both have healthy NHL connections: The Gophers have 15 drafted players on their current roster, the most of any college team, though Wisconsin over time has yielded more eventual NHLers. And both teams play in huge arenas: Mariucci holds 10,000 fans, while Wisconsin's Kohl Center can seat over 15,000. "We just built a new 30 million dollar practice facility," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves told me. "On campus. Our rink has a locker room that would rival anything in the National Hockey League." It's perks like that — not just the locker rooms, but the history, the reputation, the growing esteem among NHL general managers and coaches — that has helped attract some of the USA's top young players to go the route of NCAA hockey. And that's why, as the NHL lockout hit its second month and counting, I went to Minnesota to watch two of the NCAA's signature teams play.
No matter how loud it gets inside Mariucci Arena — and over the course of the two Gophers-Badgers games, one that ended 2-2 in overtime and one that Minnesota won 3-1, it got plenty loud — the decibel level rises whenever Nick Bjugstad is involved.
During the Minnesota team's pregame introductions, which are punctuated by figure-skating cheerleaders doing declarative axels and waving maroon and gold pom-poms, Bjugstad drew the heartiest applause. When he engaged in a few mild scraps after the whistle, a manic buzz hung in the air. That Friday, when he stole the puck in the neutral zone and pinged what would have been a shorthanded go-ahead goal off the crossbar, the collective mass inside Mariucci swelled and subsided, an ocean of unfulfilled anticipation. The following night, when he used a sluggish Badger defenseman as a screen and ripped a seeing-eye snap shot that tied the game at 1-1 in the second, everyone went momentarily insane.
Part of it is that Bjugstad is one of the top players in the country. He's a first-round NHL draft pick, taken 19th overall by the Florida Panthers in 2010. He was named preseason Player of the Year for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), and Inside College Hockey pegged him as a top-10 candidate for the Hobey Baker award. He has seven goals and 11 points in 13 games this season.
But it's about more than just the glimmer of a rising star. Everyone is watching to see where no. 27 is going, sure, but they're also reminiscing about all the places he's already been. There's a genuine fondness for Bjugstad, the feeling that he's basically family. He's certainly a native son, having grown up in Blaine, a suburb 20 to 30 minutes north of the Twin Cities. He has a more literal lineage, too: His uncle Scott played for the Gophers, the 1984 Olympic team, and several NHL franchises including the North Stars. (It's a little unnerving to do the math and realize that the younger Bjugstad was just a little over a year old when the North Stars unceremoniously decamped down to Dallas.) And at 6-foot-6, he's got the kind of raw size that makes you think in creepy phrases like "good stock."
Bjugstad was named Mr. Hockey in 2010, a distinction awarded to the best senior in the state and voted upon by media, NCAA coaches, and NHL scouts. (Past Mr. Hockeys include the Chicago Blackhawks' Nick Leddy, the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh, and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Paul Martin; they also include Kyle Rau, who earned the honor in 2011 and now plays on a line with Bjugstad for the Gophers.) He competed several times in Minnesota's epic high school state tournament, a spectacle that routinely sells out the 18,064-seat Xcel Energy Center, home to the NHL's Wild. And he's far from the only one on his team to inspire such I-knew-him-back-when pride. Minnesota, after all, is to hockey what Texas is to football.
"Growing up, you watch your high school team play in the state tournament and it's unbelievable," Bjugstad said. "A lot of people don't understand it. You go to Canada and they're like, 'You guys play high school hockey?'"
Many Gopher fans, in other words, have been watching Bjugstad since he was a kid. And since he was a kid, Bjugstad's been watching the Gophers.
"It was a no-brainer coming here, basically," said Bjugstad, who graduated from high school in three years in order to get to the university faster. "I didn't really think about going to any other school, just because you grow up in Minnesota, and you see all the good guys go through the program, and you get to watch back-to-back national championships … "
He trailed off. Sometimes the things that come most naturally to you are the hardest to properly explain.
"It was just kind of a tradition here. Minnesota hockey."
For the Wisconsin Badgers, who came away from the Border Battle weekend with a tie and a closely fought loss, the start of this season has been unrelenting and exhausting. (After a pair of 4-2 losses to Minnesota State this past weekend, the team now languishes at 1-7-2.)
"Every season has these moments," Eaves told me over the phone. "We just happen to have all of ours getting out of the gate right now."
The first weekend of November the nation's top returning scorer, Mark Zengerle, "mangled" his finger while blocking a shot on the penalty kill, necessitating surgery. Days later, assistant coach Bill Butters announced that he would be leaving the team. When I spoke with Eaves, he was in the midst of dealing with the National Letter of Intent early signing period that had just begun while also trying to find a new assistant. (Butters left to pursue his passion in the ministry; somehow hockey just wasn't religion enough.)
But none of these problems compared to what had happened in early October to incoming and highly anticipated freshman recruit Nic Kerdiles.
If Nick Bjugstad is emblematic of one possible route to hockey success for a good American boy — the well-worn Minnesota expressway — then Nic Kerdiles has traveled a more freshly paved path. The son of a French father and French Canadian mother, Kerdiles was born in Texas, lived in France for several years, and ultimately settled in Irvine, California, when he was 6. He played roller hockey, first with his neighbor and then at a place called Gretzky's — "that just kinda shows the impact that Gretzky had for hockey in California," he pointed out — but after a year or so he pestered his parents to let him strap on a different set of skates.
"I wanted to try ice hockey because I was watching the Ducks and the Kings and I fell in love with that," he said.3
After his first season on ice, he tried out on a whim for the team that California would be sending up to the 2004 Brick Invitational Tournament, a showcase event for 10-year-olds up in Edmonton. He was the last player picked for the squad.
In 2009 Kerdiles, who nicely developed into a power forward with bonus speed, got a call from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. Started in 1996 to help identify, train, and develop the USA's top hockey talent, the NTDP brings 40 players from around the country together to train and compete. They live with volunteer billet families, attend local high schools at the crack of dawn, and make up the USA's Under-17 and Under-18 squads against junior and NCAA teams.
Patrick Kane went through the program, as did Ryan Kesler, among others. Bjugstad had been invited but turned it down, opting to remain on the high school hockey circuit. But for Kerdiles, who lacked such local athletic infrastructure, the NTDP was ideal. He flourished in international play, winning gold medals in the IIHF World Under-18 Championships in 2011 and 2012 and leading the national under-18 team in scoring last year.
"I had a great two years," Kerdiles said of his time with the NTDP. "I ended up winning two medals, I got bigger, I got stronger, I got experience — all those little things."
At the NHL draft in Pittsburgh this summer, Kerdiles hoped he might be selected in the first round. He slipped to the second, but there was a silver lining: He was taken by the Anaheim Ducks, essentially his hometown team. (Kerdiles is enormously tight with his parents and sisters — "coming from a French background, we're very family-oriented" he told Scott Burnside by way of explanation — and he told me how nice it had been, during Ducks prospect camps, to be able to go home for laundry and dinner.) Otherwise, though, his draft experience was highly unremarkable: He posed for a zillion pictures, answered endless questions, tweeted with his buddies, and went out to celebratory meals.
A few months later, with the Badgers poised to open their season, the NCAA made an abrupt and entirely unexpected announcement: Following an investigation, Nic Kerdiles had been ruled ineligible and suspended for the entirety of his freshman year.
The Minnesota band was really everywhere. When I went inside the women's hockey rink, Ridder Arena,4 there the band was, or part of it anyway, milling in the stands behind one of the goals. It was Saturday afternoon, and the Minnesota women's team was playing Minnesota State with something on the line besides intrastate rivalry. The Gophers' 3-0 win one night earlier had been the team's 21st in a row, a streak that dated back to last season, spanned a run to the national championship, and tied them with the 2008 Harvard team for the longest consecutive win streak in NCAA women's hockey history. Today they were going for no. 22, a new record.
Sometimes watching one team methodically dismantle another can be boring. Not so in this case. Watching the Gophers was a little bit like seeing footage of an old Red Army game: all precision passing and relentless puck possession. When the score was somehow tied at 1-1 after 20 minutes (with Minnesota outshooting Minnesota State 13-3), it felt like a grave injustice. When the Gophers scored four times in the second, and four more in the third to win 9-1 and clinch the new NCAA record, it made much more sense — although it was admittedly a little strange to hear the band doing the "sieve! sieve sieve!" taunt to the poor visiting goaltender. (Hey, Title IX, I guess.)
The band wasn't the only group of fans in matching uniforms: Around the rink sat numerous pods of what must have been Twin Cities–area girls' teams, some in smart kelly green and blue warm-ups that said EAGAN, others in the less-specific tween girl athlete casual uniform of grey sweatpants, zip-up jackets, and makeshift headbands fashioned from pre-wrap. They giggled and cheered and marveled; they toyed with their phones; they got told by a security guy to please take their feet off the glass; they rolled their eyes behind his back to save face. They reminded me of myself and my friends, 14 years ago, the only other time I'd visited Minnesota.
I was a sophomore in high school trying out for varsity hockey, and the team was taking a onetime preseason training trip to Minnesota for reasons that remain unclear. (I suspect that the parents of one girl on our team who had major NCAA aspirations were heavily involved in organizing and funding the trip.) We stayed four to a room in the dorms of the National Sports Center in Bjugstad's hometown of Blaine (the Center's website describes it as "the world's largest amateur sports and meeting facility"; I remember it best for the icy soccer fields upon which we miserably ran shuttle runs and did grapevines to "warm up" in the morning), took an outing to the Mall of America, got stuck in bonkers Minnesota Vikings postgame traffic, and played in a bunch of exhibitions against local teams.
The girls we played were bigger than us, but also faster. They all had working slap shots. They rocked significant eyeliner. I'll always remember that some of them, probably sensing just what they were(n't) up against, didn't even bother to tie back their long hair. I'm ballparking here, but I think in the course of three or four games we lost by a cumulative 25-3. Still, we were proud just to be there, as if getting our asses beat in such a puck-loving state were a badge of honor, as if we had earned some sort of hockey gravitas through osmosis by simply showing up.
We went into a sporting goods store and bought whatever we could fit in our suitcases worth of Minnesota high school hockey apparel, and boy oh boy was there plenty to buy. Red T-shirts that said COON RAPIDS, tuques with hockey sticks and CENTENNIAL knitted into them, sweatshirts with MAPLE GROVE in block letters down the arm — then fanned out into the world, a misleading diaspora of faux–Twin Cities suburban natives. When a few years ago I finally lost the BLAINE sweatpants I had purchased and worn for a decade, I felt almost a sense of relief: No longer would I find myself in awkward conversations with actual Minnesotans. ("Oh my god, I'm from Blaine's rival town!" "Oh, um … I just … have these pants.")
I mentioned our weird Minnesota terror/obsession to one Edina hockey mom I met over the weekend.
"You sound just like my daughter," she said, "when she travels to play Canadian teams."
Back at Ridder Arena, a large bearded fellow lurked in the lobby, waiting for the players to emerge from the locker room. It was the Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel, whose sister Amanda is one of Minnesota's biggest stars and has an excellent chance of suiting up for the United States in the 2014 Olympics. (She scored twice in the game, added three assists, and was probably the most fun player to watch.) Captain Megan Bozek — who may be alongside her in Sochi and who contributed two goals and an assist — said the team hadn't even known until Friday that they were nearing any sort of record. Another player, Kelly Terry, added that they'd only found out when someone read about it on Twitter. They seemed happy about the 22 straight wins (they've since extended the streak to 24 with a pair of victories over New Hampshire last weekend) but not too happy: Their goal is to win another title, and the rest is just noise.
Nick Bjugstad had a big decision to make this summer. He could turn pro — a choice the Florida Panthers pushed for, and a decision that would be personally lucrative — or he could return to the Gophers for his junior year. As he had multiple times throughout his young career, he chose Minnesota.
"Most of all, we have a great team here returning, and that stuck with me," he said of the decision. "As an individual, I can get better here — just kinda grow into my body, and build some confidence for another year. No disrespect to the Florida organization, but I'm getting another year of school, and I'm getting closer to my degree, so that's another advantage."
Eaves, who saw a similar situation on his team last season when Justin Schultz opted into a third year, said he feels that playing that junior season is crucial for college players.
"The one stat that's interesting, and I say this even to the top guys," Eaves said, "is if you stay here for three years, 90 percent of you guys will finish your degree. If you stay here two years, only 50 percent will finish.
"If you leave here after two years, life happens," he continued. "You find a girl, you get a house, you get a dog. But if you just have one year left, you can piece that together in the summertime, or take courses online."
For Bjugstad, part of the decision stemmed from his frustration with the way last season ended for Minnesota. The team made it to the Frozen Four in Tampa, facing Boston College in a semifinal that many expected would have all the drama of a de facto national championship game between American hockey's two proudest states: Minnesota and Massachusetts.5 Instead, Boston College blew them out 6-1 and went on to beat Ferris State for the title.
"I didn't go a day this summer without thinking about it," Bjugstad said.
But he had a few other things on his mind this summer as well. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Michael Russo wrote in October that Bjugstad began hearing his name pop up in trade rumors as Florida pursued Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo. The Panthers said they wouldn't be willing to trade him, but the lesson was still clear.
"It didn't go through, but it showed me … it's a business," Bjugstad told Russo. "My uncle talks about it all the time. College hockey, you're playing with your buddies … get to the NHL, and it's a business."
Both Bjugstad and Don Lucia said he feels he is continuing to develop while at Minnesota. But I get the sense that for Bjugstad, it's also a little bit of a refuge. "I inherited guys from other places," former Gophers coach Doug Woog reflected in 2010, "but I only recruited Minnesota guys." The Woog era ended in 1999, but things haven't really changed much: Of the 28 names on this season's Gopher roster, only four hail from out of state.
The result is a self-sustaining cycle: Kids grow up watching Gophers games, recognizing names from their hometowns, perhaps, or listening to their parents proudly point out which players' dads they knew in high school. They go to games at Mariucci, which is part arena and part shrine to Minnesota hockey history. Most likely they play on a team themselves — and if they do, and if they're good, like really good, you can bet that they'll be hearing from head coach Don Lucia and his staff. And what good Minnesota kid would want to turn down playing for the team they've been brought up to love? For players like Bjugstad and Brady Skjei — or Kyle Rau, or Zach Budish, or any number of the other local Minnesota boys on the Gophers, playing college hockey at Minnesota is practically a foregone conclusion.
"I grew up 20 minutes from here, and this was a dream school of mine," said Gopher freshman Skjei, who played for the NTDP with Kerdiles and was taken in the first round of this year's draft by the Rangers. "I came to games when I was 5 or 6."
So he was one of the multitude of little kids running around in Gophers gear?
"Oh, I was one of those kids standing right there," he said, pointing to the tunnel heading out to the rink, "giving high fives to everyone that walked out."
Wisconsin's Nic Kerdiles found himself, like Bjugstad, faced with the difficult decision of whether to stay in college hockey, though their circumstances were wildly different. Whereas Bjugstad was trying to figure out whether to return for his junior season, Kerdiles was a freshman who had yet to play his first NCAA game.
Several photos taken of Kerdiles at the NHL draft were what had launched the NCAA investigation into the rookie player, as it turned out.6 The photos were ultimately deemed benign, but Kerdiles was sanctioned for having stayed in a hotel room during the draft that was part of a block reserved and paid for by Pulver, according to a report by Chris Peters. Kerdiles's family had paid Pulver back for the room, Peters said, but the NCAA considered it to be an improper "loan."
The announcement elicited familiar groans from college hockey fans and supporters. Welp, another one bites the dust was the prevailing sentiment. If Kerdiles was indeed suspended for a year, the young NHL prospect could ostensibly turn to the Canadian junior hockey leagues, where the Kelowna Rockets own his rights. And to college hockey fans, the CHL is sort of the enemy: A slew of players have chosen the CHL over college. Seth Jones, the son of the NBA's Popeye who is expected to go first or second overall in the next NHL draft, was one of the more recent young American players to go to the CHL. (Jones, who played in the NTDP for two years before aging out, had considered North Dakota, but ultimately went to play for the WHL's Portland Winterhawks.)
Many hockey types argue that the CHL, with its NHL-style schedule of games (one every couple of days) and its collection of premier (and largely Canadian) talent, is the best place for a prospect to develop.7 Others find the college model ideal. Many NCAA players skew older — 23, 24 — which makes for challenging competition. The more spread-out game schedule gives developing players time to spend lifting and, in the words of Bjugstad, growing into their bodies.
While there's no question the CHL path is the right one for any number of athletes, every domestic player that goes in that direction is one who has left the U.S. system. Which is why a concerted effort has been made in conjunction with USA Hockey to make the college route seem as attractive as possible to top young players, particularly Americans. And someone like Nic Kerdiles is the perfect candidate: He's mature, he's charismatic, he's from a "nontraditional" hockey market, and he's a happy spokesman. The NCAA, most people felt, was driving away exactly the kind of player it should be embracing — was trying to suspend him for a full season, for crying out loud — over a total ticky-tack foul.
The Wisconsin athletic department appealed the decision, and several days later the penalty was reduced from a full season to one-third; Kerdiles decided to remain at Wisconsin and serve the suspension, though both he and Eaves made it clear that they did not agree with even the shortened sentence. He will finally be eligible to play against no. 5 Denver this Friday, the first step back to normalcy for the Badgers.
"I think that my sticking around and going through the appeal process shows how important college hockey is to me and how much I love it here in Wisconsin," Kerdiles said. "I'm not bashing Canadian juniors, but it's just that in California we don't get the luxury of having college hockey around. By staying, I can be a role model, someone who gets people to look into it a little bit more."
During Saturday night's game, a clip from a movie that I didn't recognize8 played on the big scoreboard screens. It involved a delivery of caged animals and ended with the punchline "Badgers? We don't need no stinking Badgers!" Next to me in the press box, some men looked at one another, raised their eyebrows, and chuckled.
One was Bruce McLeod, the commissioner of the WCHA; another was Jeff Sauer, the former Wisconsin head coach who is now his assistant. Greg Shepherd, the conference's supervisor of officials, sat between them. Normally all three men wouldn't be at the same game, but they had chosen this weekend to put their heads together; lately, there's been a lot to discuss.
It grabbed headlines (and caused grumbles) this week in the college football world when the Big Ten gobbled up eastern schools Rutgers and Maryland in a move expected to grow the conference's national footprint. But it's not just football that's been affected by the plate tectonics of collegiate athletics realignment. When the Big Ten announced in March 2011 that it would be formally adding hockey to its slate of conference-sponsored sports beginning in 2013-14, the news triggered a seismic shift in a historic, if increasingly precarious, landscape.
Gone from the storied WCHA next year will be the two teams I traveled to see: Minnesota, one of its founding members, and Wisconsin, one of its most successful. The Gophers and the Badgers will no longer share an intraconference rivalry with heated rival North Dakota.9 Instead, they'll be doing battle against traditional football foes like Michigan, which has a storied hockey history to rival their own — as well as Penn State, whose D-I hockey program, funded to the tune of over $100 million by PSU alum and Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, just made its debut this fall.
Critics of college hockey's realignment — which also included the expansion of Hockey East and the creation of a sweeping new "superconference" called the National Collegiate Hockey Conference — say that it could harm smaller programs, while advocates argue that new rivalries will develop while pointing to the potential for new Big Ten schools like Rutgers and Maryland to one day add hockey programs.
Games are increasingly being broadcast on national TV, more players than ever are making it to the NHL, and in turn more are attracted to campuses. (Even former players tend to gravitate back. Forward Michael Mersch, an L.A. Kings draft pick who like Bjugstad graduated from high school in three years in order to play college hockey and who leads Wisconsin in scoring this season, netting both goals in the Badgers' 2-2 tie to the Gophers, told me that several locked-out NHL players who once played for Wisconsin have been working out at the team's facilities to stay in shape. "Adam Burish, Craig Smith … it's cool to bounce ideas off them and get tips. They're obviously big-time players.")
It's always scary, this change, but NCAA hockey does seem ascendant right now. And it's worth remembering that whatever may happen, you can always count on the band playing on.
There's a flight to quality in any panic, and Minnesota remains a relatively safe investment in this time of professional hockey turbulence. Drive around the Twin Cities suburbs and you see it everywhere: hockey nets in driveways, as-yet-unfrozen hockey rinks (some with full-height boards!) in side yards. In two days there, I had three different people issue very personal apologies to me for the lack of snowfall at that point. That's not to say that they don't care about the lockout: They do, they hate it; the jubilence from so many lakeside barbecues on the Fourth of July over the Minnesota Wild's signing both Zach Parise (a good Minnesota boy!) and Ryan Suter (he's from Wisconsin, hmm, but his wife's from nearby Bloomington! Approve!) has been replaced by cynicism. But they've got other outlets; they always have.
The saddest thing I learned in the course of visiting Minnesota was that the phrase "The State of Hockey" is not some beloved old description once uttered by Herb Brooks but rather a registered trademark held by the Wild dating back to the team's inaugural 2000-01 campaign. It makes sense, though: There's no surer way to curry favor than to kiss up a little bit. (Even the inside of the Xcel Energy Center is decorated with high school hockey jerseys.) You have to hand it to the team's marketing folks: They were smart enough to realize that hockey in Minnesota goes well beyond the NHL. We should all be so lucky.
This article has been updated to correct information about the women's hockey arenas at the University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin.