Thanksgiving Game

North Dakota goalie Cam Johnson gave a shove to Minnesota's Brannon McManus in the third period of a 2017 meeting between the teams at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

MINNEAPOLIS — Early last summer, when athletic department officials at the University of Minnesota were planning out the winter sports seasons, they saw that a home hockey series with North Dakota would happen the same weekend as a home football game with Wisconsin. They did not immediately figure that the football game would likely determine a trip to the Rose Bowl, with ESPN’s College GameDay on campus.

“That’s exactly what I was predicting in June,” joked Tom McGinnis, the school’s senior associate athletic director. “I did think it would be our most highly-attended (football) game of the year. I didn’t know it would be our most highly-attended game ever.”

The overlap meant that they were not going to try to have 50,000 football fans and 10,000 hockey fans try to park next door to one another on the same day, so hockey wouldn’t work on a traditional Friday-Saturday schedule. So other options were considered. They settled on trying something new: college hockey in the evening on Thanksgiving day.

“We did not want to do Friday-Sunday, and with football on Saturday, I’m glad we didn’t,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “(North Dakota) didn’t want to do Wednesday-Friday because of the quick turnaround with the travel. So it was, ‘well, do we try Thursday?’ and we’re trying it.”

While there was some predictable grumbling about hockey “messing with” a family holiday, Thanksgiving has become about sports (with NFL games on TV) and shopping (many stores are open that day, starting their Black Friday sales 24 hours earlier) as it is about sweet potatoes and stuffing. And for hockey coaches and players, traveling or gathering with teammates, not family, on Thanksgiving is pretty standard. After years of playing at prep schools, in juniors, and in college, at least one current Gopher had no recollection of the last time he sat down for a big family meal on Thanksgiving day.

Motzko has stressed to his players that this is not Thanksgiving week, it’s North Dakota week. They will treat the day like a normal Friday game day. Get a pregame nap. No turkey. Focus on the Fighting Hawks. Scott Reedy, who leads the Gophers in goals, said he might trade text messages with family and will see them after the game, but the big turkey dinner will wait until Sunday.

“In my 30 years, maybe I’ve had four Thanksgivings off,” Motzko said. “And players are used to it. In junior hockey, they’re playing. My favorite holiday is the Fourth of July, because it’s the only one I get.”

North Dakota coach Brad Berry sees it as a team bonding opportunity, and a chance to showcase this rivalry on a day when people are used to watching sports.

“I guess from a coaching standpoint I think it's a great side of it because you know obviously spending time with your family or Thanksgiving dinner and then guess what, you get to watch a great college game at night,” Berry said on Monday.

 
 

McGinnis said the ticket sales have been encouraging. As of Tuesday, one U of M source indicated fewer than 800 tickets unsold for Friday, and around 2,000 still available for Thursday. And like anywhere the Hawks play, they expect a fair amount of green visible inside 3M Arena at Mariucci both nights.

“We know there are a lot of North Dakota fans in the Twin Cities so whether we were playing on Thanksgiving or in October or February, they tend to find a way into the arena,” McGinnis said. “That’s part of what makes this rivalry special is that both sides get up for these games.”

Even if just this one time, it means putting down the drumstick, and forgoing that second helping of cranberry sauce.

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