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Sleeping with the Enemy

By John King, 11/24/15, 11:15PM CST

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Believing in the Gophers this year means opening your heart to North Dakota and the Big Ten.

Creation No. 0010

The 2015-16 edition of the University of Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team appears to have abandoned the standard Ski-U-Mah script. The smooth-skating waterbugs the Gophers tend to recruit have been replaced by a dozen players 6’1"or taller. Undersized defensemen, a staple on the Gopher roster for years, have given way to hulking blueliners like 6’5" Ryan Collins, 6’3" Jack Glover, and 6’2" linebacker-on-skates Nick Seeler.  

Nine games into the season, the Gophers have a record of 4 wins and 5 losses, at times their oversized roster looking like fawns struggling to find their legs on Mariucci’s Olympic-sized ice sheet. They appear to be a team built from the backend outward that will be hard to score against (All Hail Lord Guentzel!), while struggling to put the puck in the net themselves. 

So, to recap . . .  

. . .the Golden Gophers are a team with considerable size, especially along the blue line.

. . .the Golden Gophers are a young team that will probably find their form in early January.

. . .the Golden Gophers have players who aren’t afraid to play the body, especially Seeler, whose game is like a Tarantino film: supremely violent, and always fun to watch.

Last I checked, Dave Hakstol is eating cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, and Dean Blais is still down in Omaha, but I’d swear this year’s Gopher team looks a hell of a lot like the University of North Dakota Fighting . . . Hawks. If you find that unsettling, don’t worry; I’m just getting started.

It’s now in vogue in these parts to complain openly about Big Ten hockey and to blame conference realignment for just about anything.

Well, considering the Gophers are ranked #37 in the Pairwise (below Wisconsin, and just above Bentley), it’s time to bury the hatchet with Big Ten hockey because winning the conference or the year-end Big Ten tournament look to be Minnesota’s best chance to make the NCAA tournament this season. 

That’s right—it’s time to love up Big Ten hockey. It’s time we got excited to see another freshman phenom from Ann Arbor. This year his name isn’t Dylan Larkin, it’s Kyle Connor—and he’ll take your breath away. It’s time to learn the last name PEGULA, and find out if he has any other rich friends because his wallet and enthusiasm have put the Penn State men’s hockey program on the map in just a few years. And finally, it’s time to circle the Wisconsin game on the calendar again if for no other reason than to enjoy watching Gopher-killer Grant Besse and worry quietly to ourselves about the Gophers hitting a speed bump against a down-and-out Badger program.

So, maybe you’re not comfortable seeing the Gophers wearing the familiar black hat of the outlaw as North Dakota always did. The Sioux always played the perfect heel. The black jerseys. The weird German traditions Ralph Engelstad upheld at his Imperial Palace casino. The offensive nickname. Dean Blais even resembled James Bond bad guy, Jaws, from Moonraker. And yes, North Dakota had 6’3" violent defenseman of their own—but they had actual villain names like Ben Blood.

Or maybe you’re still pining for the old WCHA. You miss watching the Gophers play against all of the local teams where you know the programs and you know the names. You even miss going steady with Fox Sports North and a Friday-Saturday college hockey TV schedule you could rely on.

Well, that’s too bad.

That’s too bad because this year’s Gopher team has an eerie resemblance to some of the teams iced by our old friends from Grand Forks. So, let’s hope they hit their stride in early 2016 like Hakstol’s teams always seemed to. And let’s give Big Ten hockey a big wet kiss on the mouth, because the Gophers’ best bet to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament this season will more than likely require a Big Ten conference or tournament championship.

Yep, this year being a Gopher fan means getting down with your bad self. 

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