College hockey's most hated conference claimed three of four spots in the Frozen Four over the weekend, and it's only made an already heated debate about the Big Ten's impact on the State of Hockey even hotter.
The vitriol between Big Ten haters and supporters goes back to 2013 when the Big Ten arrived in men's hockey, taking with it longtime Western Collegiate Hockey Association power teams Minnesota and Wisconsin, and leaving a wake that ripped apart the WCHA and the in-state rivalries that came with it.
Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha abandoned the WCHA for a new home in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). All the while, Minnesota State-Mankato and Bemidji State were left in the WCHA, where they remain today.
"We're used to rivalries around here, and the WCHA was built with those. Everyone wanted to beat Minnesota and everyone wanted to play Minnesota, especially the in-state teams," explained Gophers great Pat Micheletti.
It was essentially the blue bloods stealing from the blue collar, but it hasn't exactly harmed the level of play across Minnesota.
"If anything, college hockey in Minnesota is probably better," says UMD's radio play-by-play voice Bruce Ciskie. "The problem is that the rivalries aren't the same because people perceive the games as meaningless because points aren't on the line. The reality in college hockey is the non-conference games, a lot of times, mean more than the conference games."
'It's Gopher fans I worry about'
Ciskie's fix is for fans to start embracing change the way North Dakota has.
"Their fans have embraced the NCHC," says Ciskie. "Yeah, they don't get to play Minnesota State, Bemidji State or the Gophers on a regular basis...but now when UMD is in there it's always a big deal."
"They've embraced the rivalries that they have in their new conference, and that is the example that needs to be followed."
And if there's one fan base that has more work to do than the rest, it's Minnesota, Ciskie argues.
"It's Gopher fans that I worry about. We've lost a lot of college hockey fans in Minnesota – primarily from the Gophers – over a number of different things, but it starts with the Big Ten changes and it moves into some other things that they've done internally."
Overall, the Gophers finished third among D1 programs in attendance this season, although they only averaged 87.6 percent capacity in the 10,000-seat Mariucci Arena compared to near sellouts every season going back to the WCHA days and beyond.
"The smarter people hopefully will get together someday, whether it be interlocking schedules, just find a way to get these rivalries back," said a hopeful Micheletti.
"For now....embrace it, enjoy it and let's grow the game."