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At a small rink, a big new rivalry may have begun as Gophers and St. Thomas play exhibition

Minnesota tops Tommies 5-2.

St. Thomas vs Minnesota Gophers
Minnesota forward Colin Schmidt moves around around St. Thomas defenseman Trevor Ledonne during the Gophers' 5-2 exhibition win over the Tommies on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022 at Doug Woog Arena in South St. Paul.
Matt Krohns / University of Minnesota Athletics
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SOUTH ST. PAUL – Most of college hockey’s great rivalries started from humble beginnings, either on an outdoor ice sheet in a cold corner of campus, or on a small rink with fans packed into every corner.

Sunday afternoon’s exhibition game between the Minnesota Gophers and St. Thomas Tommies will not count in the standings or for statistical purposes anywhere, but someday it may be remembered the same way as those early rivalry games from decades ago, as the start of something pretty special.

Officially, the Gophers won 5-2 in the first on-ice meeting between these Twin Cities neighbors in nearly a century. But for the 2,300 who packed into every available bench and corner of Doug Woog Arena, it was more about seeing college hockey in an intimate setting, and maybe seeing the start of a rivalry destined for growth.

“How great was that, to come into South St. Paul with so much history here, to have a great crowd, it was pretty cool for our guys, and for both teams,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, after his team faced an opponent for the first time since a loss at Michigan on Dec. 4. “The hockey part, there was a little rust after being off a month.

Colin Schmidt, playing just his third game in a Minnesota uniform, and Matt Denman, playing for the first time this season, both scored for the Gophers, who got 13 saves from backup goalie Justen Close, in rallying to win.

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Those were important on-ice minutes for the Gophers, who may face a roster in flux in the final two months of the Big Ten regular season. With NHLers not going to the Winter Olympics now, there is an expectation that several current collegians will be picked for Team USA, and more than one Gopher may be among them.

St. Thomas vs Minnesota Gophers
Playing for the Minnesota Gophers for the first time this season, defenseman Matt Denman (left) got a congratulatory hug from Blake McLaughlin after Denman scored an empty net goal in their team's 5-2 exhibition win over St. Thomas on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022 at Doug Woog Arena in South St. Paul.
Matt Krohns / University of Minnesota Athletics

“They’re going to be taking a lot of college players. It’s going to affect us, I just don’t know how deep,” Motzko said. “But if any of our guys have the opportunity, at this stage in their life, we’re going to open the door for them to go. I’ve told USA Hockey our roster is wide open for them.”

The Tommies, who have won just one of their first 20 games in their inaugural Division I season, were out-shot by a 3-to-1 margin, but proved to be no pushover. St. Thomas took the lead just 11 seconds into the game, scoring on the first shot of the game after a Gophers turnover. And they got a power play goal early in the second period, taking a 2-2 tie into the final minute of the middle period.

“When we envisioned playing here at Doug Woog Arena, this is what we envisioned,” said Tommies coach Rico Blasi. “I think the fans got a good game. It was fun, it was tight, it was electric and I know we’re really appreciative as we build our program to be a part of what we hope will be a big-time rivalry in the Twin Cities.”

Both coaches said they expect to face one another in non-conference play in coming years. For the players, if this was the start of a new rivalry, they seemed to be all for it.

“It was a lot of fun playing St. Thomas for the first time,” said Gophers co-captain Ben Meyers, who said the atmosphere took him back to his prep hockey roots. “It’s a good experience playing a new team and it kind of felt like a high school game again, with a packed arena like this and a small building.”

The rink is named for Woog, a South St. Paul native who was an All-American player for the Gophers and coached the team to 388 wins over 14 seasons. Woog died in December 2019 at age 75.

The Gophers have another exhibition game, versus the USA Hockey U18 Team, on Monday evening, then get back into Big Ten play with a series at Michigan State on Jan. 7-8. The Tommies, who got goals from Andrew Kangas and Kyler Grundy, host Bowling Green on Jan. 7-8.

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Minnesota 5, St. Thomas 2

Minnesota 2-1-2—5

St. Thomas 1-1-0—2

First period — 1. UST, Andrew Kangas (unassisted), 0:11. 2. MIN, Colin Scmidt (Jack Pebix, Grant Cruikshank), 5:01. 3. MIN, Bryce Brodzinski (Mike Koster), 17:08. Penalties — Tristan Broz, MIN (boarding), 19:09.

Second period — 4. UST, Kyler Grundy (Christiano Versich, Trevor Zins), 0:47, (pp). 5. MIN, Jaxon Nelson (Ben Meyers, Ryan Johnson), 19:33, (sh). Penalties — Trevor LeDonne, UST (tripping), 3:14; Sammy Walker, MIN (cross checking), 18:49.

Third period — 6. MIN, Meyers (Cruikshank, Jackson LaCombe), 2:32, (pp). 7. MIN, Matt Denman (unassisted), 17:10, (en). Penalties — Aaron Swanson, UST (tripping), 2:00; Walker, MIN (goaltender interference), 7:20; Nelson, MIN (5-checking from behind, game misconduct – served by Matt Denman), 11:59; Blaine Warnert, UST (tripping), 13:38; Nolan Sawchuk, UST (tripping), 13:52.

Shots on goal — MIN 15-16-14—45; UST 6-2-7—15. Goalies — Justen Close, MIN (15 shots-13 saves); Jacob Berger, UST (26-24); Peter Thome, UST (18-16). Power plays — MIN 1-of-3, UST 1-of-4. Referees — David Marcotte, Kevin Corbett. Linesmen — Johnathan Morrison, Nicholas Bradshaw. Att. — 2,300.

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