Sports Illustrated-Gopher Glory

Gopher Glory

In my hometown of Minneapolis/St. Paul, we are blessed with something not even New York City can boast: a major university and franchises in all four major pro leagues. That’s a lot of sports to watch.

So on a cold snowy night, when it’s time to warm up from a long day of ice fishing (yes, local lakes can be enjoyed without Vikings on party boats), it’s not our multimillion-dollar miscreant crybabies we turn to, but the college kids on ice skates who are playing for the love of the game.

First things first: a non-Midwesterner might struggle to understand why an educated person would pay top dollar to go from the outdoor patch of ice that is the Minnesota winter to an indoor patch occupied by a bunch of college kids. You simply need to be grounded in a more global understanding of sport.

Aside from Chivas, the soccer power from Guadalajara that prides itself on fielding only Mexican-born players, I am unaware of many teams that limit their pool of talent to locals. But until five or six yeas ago, Minnesota’s hockey program survived almost entirely on homegrown players.

“Every kid who plays hockey in the state dreams of being a Minnesota Gopher,” says current Minnesota captain Gino Guyer, who was born in Coleraine, Minn. “I’ve always thought of hockey in Minnesota like football in Texas. It means that much.”

Call it arrogant, misguided, ‘Sota-centric, or whatever, but it worked. See: Herb Brooks, Neil Broten, and the rest of the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Now, only a select few Dakotans and the occasional Wisconsinite are given temporary visas to cross the border and score goals for the greater good that is Gopher hockey.

One must also recall the sights and sounds of fascism in Italy. When the Golden Gophers score, the entire crowd stands up, right arms extended with clinched fists, and spells out M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A, accentuating each letter with a punch to the air. The salute lasts about 15 seconds and ends with a twirl of the right arm above the head and a final exclamatory punch forward.

This can get tiring on a good night, and the casual fan might decide to take a breather. But the dedicated follower in aisle 18, seat 7, the one with the Gophers hat complete with fuzzy protruding ears, will stare at you threateningly.

“It’s a thrill to play in front of a crowd like that,” says Calgary Flames defenseman Jordan Leopold, who manned the Gophers’ blue line from 1998-2002. “There’s a six-year waiting list for season tickets. The building holds 11,000 and it’s sold out every night, every year, every game.”

The college kids in the stands are just as entertaining as the ones on the rink. Piling into the section behind the visitor’s goal, backed by the enormous pep band made up of clarinets from the Iron Range and tubas from the prairie, these kids are tipsy, but witty. I’m sure I’ll change my tune when I begin taking my own son to games, but for now, listening to U of M students chant “Union College” (an opponent) is simply hilarious.

At a recent Gophers game, my father and I were treated to eight goals and thorough home team domination, but something was missing. Yes, it used to be even better.

Across the street from the still sparkling “new” Mariucci Arena, where we sit, is the “old” one. It was our first true sporting love. We are warmed by memories of homemade caramel corn, a low ceiling pocketed with dents from flying pucks, and old clanking radiators that served as warm perches for the cigar-smoking old timers between periods. We gaze longingly at the ramshackle rink. Like the first car we ever owned, she’s a little run-down, but, man, was she fun.

Our nostalgic hallucinations were shattered by an unwitting Union College forward who made the very unfortunate decision to run straight into the Gopher’s goaltender. Five of Minnesota’s more massive players quickly piled on and proceeded to “Eddie Shore” any Union player who came near the fray. With Reg Dunlap glee, the crowd delighted in seeing their own beat the crap out of the liberal arts travelers from upstate New York.

Yes, this all might sound a bit old fashioned and even hooligan, but it gets at the heart of why college sports can be much, well… much more. Most of these kids are not burdened by trying to feed their families on mere millions of dollars. They are having fun. So are we. What is better than that?