MINNEAPOLIS – Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin have a lot of hockey history together. The schools have combined for 20 of 55 NCAA national championships, rank in the top seven for all-time wins and have rivalries in every other sport.
But 10 years ago, the multi-team rivalry was dying.
When Michigan and Michigan State left the WCHA to join the more geographically compact CCHA in 1981, they left decades of tradition in the process. Before Michigan left the WCHA, the Wolverines had battled the Gophers multiple times annually since 1923, but from ’81-’91 they played them just four times. Michigan had played Wisconsin annually since it joined the WCHA in 1969, but played the Badgers just twice.
Then in the early 1990s four coaches – Red Berenson of Michigan, Ron Mason of Michigan State, Jeff Sauer of Wisconsin and Doug Woog of Minnesota – got together to rekindle the rivalries that used to be so prevalent in college hockey.
The four coaches developed the College Hockey Showcase, an event that would take place every year during Thanksgiving weekend to give these major programs an opportunity to play each other every year. There would be no winner, all tournament team or MVP – just four schools showcasing the sport.
“It made sense at the time that the Big Ten schools should compete, particularly with longtime rivals such as Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Berenson said. “It just made sense that we should get them on our schedule and visa-versa.”
Michigan hosted the first showcase in 1993 at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Since it was the first time the CCHA battled the WCHA in such a high-profile event outside of the NCAA Tournament, league pride was on the line. When Michigan beat Wisconsin and Michigan State beat Minnesota the first night, everyone was confident that the CCHA was better than the WCHA.
But the next night those questions were silenced when Minnesota beat Michigan and Wisconsin beat Michigan State.
For the next three years the schools rotated hosting the venue in Milwaukee, St. Paul and in Detroit at the Joe Louis Arena. But the coaches got together again and decided that a neutral site was not where the tournament belonged; instead, it belonged at the schools themselves.
“There are rinks and cities dying to bring in schools like this for a tournament,” Berenson said. “We think we could bring this show to various venues around the country and it would be successful. But that doesn’t help the fans in Michigan and in Minnesota. (On campus) is where it really belongs.”
So in its 10th year, the College Hockey Showcase was as prominent as ever. While Berenson is the only coach left from the event’s founding fathers, all the teams involved treat it as an important part of their schedule even though it does not count in any league standings.
“Any time you get to play the best teams in other conferences you always get up for the games,” said Michigan freshman Jeff Tambellini after scoring a goal against Wisconsin Friday night in his first College Hockey Showcase game. “And I love coming to different places, especially in big arenas like this, where it feels like a show here. So it’s pretty special for all of us.”
Events like this make Wolverine players wish that they got more opportunities to play against the top opponents from outside the CCHA.
“It’s tough to gauge yourself against the whole country when you’re playing in one league,” sophomore forward Dwight Helminen said.
There has been some chatter around the CCHA of limiting the league games from 28 to 24 as Hockey East and the East Coast Athletic Conference have done, but some schools that are more strapped financially are against it because of their inability to get teams to play games in their own building.
“I’d love to go out and play Harvard and (Boston University) on a weekend and the next year go out and play (Boston College) and New Hampshire,” Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said. “I think that’d be good for everybody. I personally would like to have an opportunity to have, not a lot more, but just a little more leeway in terms of scheduling. I like seeing the different areas and different teams and different styles.”
Berenson has also talked with Boston University coach Jack Parker and Boston College coach Jerry York about having an event similar to the one this past weekend, but because of the number of league games the schools play, it is almost impossible to find a weekend when four major conference schools are available. For example, Michigan went to play Minnesota in Minneapolis for a two-game series in 1985 thinking that the Gophers would come back to Yost in the next year or two.
But Minnesota’s return visit didn’t come until 1991.
However, Minnesota and Michigan were back at it again in yesterday’s 4-1 Michigan win, keeping alive one of the biggest old rivalries in college hockey. For Berenson, there was nothing better than winning against two Big Ten opponents at this point of the season.
“To be able to play well in this environment and find a way to win to win the game is good for all our young players,” Berenson said. “That’s why I’m glad were playing these games this time of year.”