No matter what sport it may be, a border battle between Wisconsin and Minnesota will always be considered a marquee matchup.
In women’s hockey though, the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry has consistently featured some of the highest quality of play in the sport year in and year out. At least one of the teams has been featured in the NCAA championship game in each of the last six years.
Interim head coach Tracey DeKeyser, who has been a part of the Wisconsin program since its inception in 1999, relishes in the rivalry’s intense, yet highly respectful atmosphere, which will reignite this weekend in the regular season finale.
“It’s been a long-lived border battle since my start here in ’99,” DeKeyser said. “It’s always fun, it’s a friendly rivalry and our coaching staffs are very respectful. We enjoy playing each other — it’s usually a clean, fast-paced hockey game.”
At 11 years, it may not be as old as other classic sporting rivalries, but since the two teams have often ended the other’s season, it has made up for age with high stakes.
After the program’s beginning in 1999, the Badgers spent six years hurriedly catching up to the established Gophers program. For that time period, Wisconsin struggled to overthrow a Minnesota team that won national championships in both 2004 and 2005.
After Minnesota’s second championship, however, a role reversal occurred and Wisconsin quickly became a thorn in Minnesota’s side. The 2005-06 season marked the arrival of Wisconsin as a women’s hockey powerhouse.
In November of that season, the Badgers claimed their first series sweep against their neighbors and the momentum snowballed from there.
The two teams met again in the WCHA championship in February, which Wisconsin won 4-1; later in March it was much the same story when the Badgers won their first national championship, casting down the Gophers in a 3-0 victory.
“I think the favorite memory for most Badgers would be the first NCAA win in the Minnesota backyard,” DeKeyser said. “We won at Mariucci Arena for our first national title and it was just sweet justice. There were so many losses in the past.
“And I say that in a friendly way, because they’re a great program and I respect what they’re doing up there.”
Over the next three years, the Badgers would eliminate the Gophers from the WCHA playoffs three times, plus once more in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.
The latter is a game remembered vividly by junior forward Kelly Nash, who tallied a goal in the 3-2 overtime victory.
“We went into overtime and it was intense,” she said. “We were all nervous in the locker room, we didn’t know that it was going to go that far but we scored right away. I’d say that was my favorite (memory playing Minnesota) because it meant a lot to our team to beat them, especially at that time.”
Another chapter will be added to that history this weekend, and once again, the stakes are high.
Wisconsin needs success to lock up a top-four finish in the WCHA and better their chances at an NCAA tournament birth, while Minnesota intends to seal up their first place position in the conference.
The stage is set once again.
To have such an important game come down to a road trip to the house of a big rival might seem like a nightmare for most teams, but not for the Badgers. Minnesota’s Ridder Arena is exactly where Wisconsin has won many postseason games against the Gophers, which has only amplified the rivalry even more.
“I love playing there, it’s almost like playing at home,” senior captain Jasmine Giles said. “It always has a great attendance, and even though the crowd is cheering against us, it pumps us up that much more to play well.”
There is little doubt the upcoming regular season finale will affect the postseason of both teams. Regardless of the outcome, it’s hard to imagine it will be the last time the two teams will see each other this season.
“It always comes down to ‘see you in the playoffs, see you in the quarterfinals, NCAA Frozen Four,’” DeKeyser said. “Usually in the months of February and March we see the Gophers a lot.”