Minnesota State will open WCHA play on Friday night at Bemidji State. It's a matchup of the league's only two Minnesota-based teams. There had been five, of course, but the big college-hockey shakeup took Minnesota to the Big Ten and Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State to the NCHC.
Even before the great schism, you might have had a hard time answering the question of just who Minnesota State's biggest rival was, but now, it seems, Mavericks-Beavers might fit that bill.
It's hardly a bitter matchup right now. Elsewhere in the league, Alaska Anchorage and Alaska have had a strong nonconference battle as have Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech. Those rivalries ought to get ramped up even more now that their games carry more weight in terms of points for the league standings.
And who's to say that MSU is tops on Bemidji State's radar. Last week, the Beavers opened conference play at Alabama Huntsville. Those two programs squared off several times as College Hockey America foes before that conference dissolved, and before that, they played each other for four NCAA D2 titles.
As I wrote about in my Tuesday Free Press column, Minnseota State has been seeking a real rival since it made the leap to D1. In the old D2/D3 days, Bemidji State was one of those teams, as was St. Cloud State, a team the Mavericks have played more than any other.
Fans and Mankato hoped Minnesota would be that team, or North Dakota. And while the Mavericks have had some great games and weekends against those two teams, you never really felt like the rivalry was reciprocated. Duluth? St. Cloud? The former also was a well-established WCHA team, while the latter seemed to be seeking the same from the power teams, rather than rekindling the old days with MSU.
The WCHA made Alaska Anchorage its playing partner, the team locked into a four-game, home-and-home every year while the other teams rotated throughout the schedule. Meanwhile Minnesota State and Nebraska Omaha created a trophy series, the Spirit of the Maverick, for their games both as nonleague and league members. The trophy often felt forced, though. It seemed more important to UNO, which hyped it up as former MSU coach Troy Jutting (now an Omaha assistant) often downplayed the hardware.
Geographically, Bemidji State makes the most sense right now — for teams, players and fans. The Mavericks will continue to play Minnesota in nonconfernece games, and there's going to be the North Star College Cup that pits four of the state's five teams against each other each January. MSU coach Mike Hastings said he'd like to get Omaha back on the regular schedule and continue the trophy series after taking this year off. And it would only make sense for MSU to keep playing some of their old league foes in order to cut back on the crazy travel and expense of the new WCHA.
But who knows? Perhaps something will spark a different and new rivalry. Bowling Green? Ferris State? Michigan Tech?
Who do you think the Mavericks' main rival is?