By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
The sport of hockey was built upon the frozen lakes and ponds of the Canadian countryside in the late 19th century. Canadians, searching for an identity to define their new nation, latched on to a primitive form of lacrosse played by the native peoples of their land.
The game eventually evolved into hockey, and gave Canadians something that was uniquely theirs. It was a game meant to capture the harsh realities of settling on the frozen landscape of a new and untamed land.
UNO and North Dakota will return to those roots this Saturday when the two teams skate together outdoors in one of the most anticipated games in program history.
“Anytime after school, I think three, four days a week we’d be out there until after dark, maybe skipping the homework, saving that until a little later at night,” goaltender John Faulkner said. “I think it’s just part of the Canadian culture. You love playing.”
A generation earlier, and a few hundred miles to the south things weren’t much different.
“We skated on the lake, and we skated on the outdoor ice,” Dean Blais said about playing hockey as a boy. “Sometimes there’d be 40, 50 guys on the rink and one puck, so you figured out how to get it.”
“Sunday afternoon was always a big game with the farmers outside of International Falls who came in. We played the city versus the farmers every Sunday. You started skating at noon after church and went until four in the afternoon.”
Playing outside, whether in Canada or the northern parts of the United States, was a rite of passage for anyone who now plays the game. The stories of skating on a sheet of ice in someone’s back yard or playing sun up to sun down aren’t just popular stereotypes.
It was how many college hockey players first learned to skate and began to acquire the skills that got them to where they are today.
“That was where I learned how to skate. My dad took me to the outdoor rink when I was two right by my house,” Ryan Walters said. “I’ve skated every summer and every winter when I go back home for Christmas break.”
The outdoor hockey game has become a celebrated annual ritual ever since the ‘Cold War’ between Michigan and Michigan State started the trend in 2000.
On Oct. 6, 2001, 74,544 showed up to Spartan Stadium to watch the Wolverines and the Spartans skate to a 3-3 tie, and the fad was born.
Since that October day in 2000, over 60 more outdoor games have been held between the ranks of college hockey, the NHL, minor league hockey and the International Ice Hockey Federation. The largest outdoor game ever attended was a rematch of the first outdoor college hockey game between Michigan and Michigan State on Dec. 11, 2010.
‘The Big Chill at the Big House’, as it was called, was held at U of M’s Michigan Stadium with a capacity of 109,901. The total number of fans at the game was 113,411. That number set a world record for attendance at a hockey game.
“I know a lot of my friends who don’t play hockey, they’re football guys and basketball guys, they enjoy putting the skates on and getting out there every once in a while, too,” Walters said. “It’s just a fun thing to do in Minnesota because everybody plays hockey, mostly. It’s a great way to get your friends together.”
Though TD Ameritrade Park simply doesn’t have the seating to even challenge that number, some history will be made Saturday afternoon. When the Omaha Lancers and Lincoln Stars drop the puck prior to the UND vs. UNO game, it will be the first outdoor game in USHL history.
Couple that with the fact no UNO player has ever played outdoors at this level, and you’ve got a day for the ages. How does a team avoid letting the moment get the best of them?
“We really haven’t talked about the outdoor game at all,” Blais said. “This team is focused weekend to weekend. When the games get to Saturday night, we’ll talk about North Dakota.”
With all the talk about history and the moment, there’s also quite a bit of outside business that has to be taken care of. Both North Dakota and UNO are fighting for the top spot of the WCHA and this weekend’s matchup is sure to go a long way in identifying the contender and the pretender.
“As fun as this weekend’s gonna be, we also gotta bear down here and try to get a couple wins,” Walters said. “Every point counts now towards the end of the year. With a team like North Dakota winning a couple games, it’s not just two points it’s four.
After the Mavs split with Michigan Tech in Omaha, and UND earned three points at home against surging Wisconsin, UNO and North Dakota are separated by just two points. St. Cloud State swept at Bemidji State and remain in first-place with a three-point lead over the Mavs.
UNO sits alone in second while UND, Minnesota and Denver are all tied for third.
“I think that’s something that’s great about our team,” Faulkner said. “We understand what’s at stake, we have to get the two points. You can’t let that (the outdoor game) be a distraction. You can’t think of any excuses in a league this tight. You’re in the spot you are, and you have an opportunity to do something special this year.
Plus there’s the history that will always follow North Dakota and UNO as long as Dean Blais is head coach of the Mavs. Ever since Blais left Grand Forks for the NHL, and a year in the USHL, UND and the Mavs have always had a little bit more riding on the line.
Blais spent 19 seasons with North Dakota, nine as an assistant and 10 as the head coach. After leading UND to two national championships, five straight appearances in the NCAA tournament and various other accomplishments, North Dakota fans have always had a little bit of discontent for the one-time leader of their program.
But although UND and UNO are at almost opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of being established as a power in Division I hockey, the Mavs have more than held their own against storied North Dakota. In six conference matchups the teams are an even 3-3.
And almost every one of those games have been memorable. UNO earned its first ever WCHA win over UND two years ago when Alex Hudson slammed a rebound home with just 0.3 seconds remaining in the game.
In the Mavs first-ever trip to Grand Forks, and the ‘palace on the prairie’ known as Ralph Engelstad Arena, UNO took down No. 2 North Dakota 8-4 thanks to a hat trick from former captain Joey Martin.
A year later it was Ryan Walters who came up big, scoring the game-winner 1:21 into overtime to give the Mavs another win in Grand Forks.
If you examine the six game series even closer, it’s easy to see why many games have been memorable and come down to the wire. UNO has combined for 18 goals, UND 16.
On the power play, the Mavs have scored on 5-of-22 chances (23 percent) while UND has 4 goals in 34 chances (12 percent). However, all five of UNO’s power play goals against North Dakota came in the 8-4 blowout in Grand Forks two years ago.
The Mavs have fired 172 shots in the series, an average of over 28 per game. UND has 184 total shots for an average of a little over 30 per game.
UNO goaltenders have a 2.67 goals against average in the series and a .920 save percentage.
North Dakota goalies have given up an average of 3 goals per game and have a .905 save percentage.
Faulkner, who’s likely to get both starts this weekend, has been in net for five of the six matchups. His numbers in that time are a 3-2 record with a 3.00 GAA and a .905 save percentage.
“It’s great to just get out there and skate around the open ice and in the cold air,” Faulkner said. “I think you ask any hockey player if you get a chance to play in a game like this, obviously it brings back some of the childhood roots and brings back some of the memories of skating on the rinks back as a young kid.”
“Everyone who gets to take part in something like this, I think they’re gonna remember it for the rest of their life.”