NMU hockey: Wildcats, Huskies renew rivalry as WCHA foes for first time in 15 years

MARQUETTE – Because of the Big Ten, Michigan Tech’s John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton will not longer see regular visits from Wisconsin or Minnesota.

Meanwhile in Marquette, Northern Michigan’s Berry Events Center isn’t scheduled to see Michigan or Michigan State any time soon following the dissolution of the CCHA.

Thankfully, the Wildcats and Huskies have each other.

“It lessens the blow, no question, that we’re playing them,” third-year Michigan Tech head coach Mel Pearson said. “I think we have an opportunity for our fans to go to Marquette. It’s an easy drive for their fans to come here. I just think it creates some electricity in the building. People will come to these games. We’re going to have great crowds.”

The Huskies and Wildcats will meet at 7:07 p.m. Friday in Marquette and at 7:07 p.m. Saturday in Houghton as WCHA rivals for the first time in over 15 years with sellout crowds expected at the Berry and SDC.

The two sides meet again Feb. 21 in Houghton and Feb. 22 in Marquette.

Northern and Tech were conference rivals for three seasons from 1981-1984 in the CCHA, then for 13 more seasons in the WCHA until the ‘Cats returned to the CCHA in 1997.

According to NMU head coach Walt Kyle, the Upper Peninsula’s three NCAA Division I hockey programs – Tech, Northern and Lake Superior State – should always be in the same league.

Up until this year, that’s only been true for three seasons when Tech was part of the CCHA in the early 80s.

Oh, and someone needs to “step up and sponsor a trophy” for the series too, Kyle said.

“I think it’s been ridiculous, out of people’s control, but ridiculous we haven’t been in the same conference as them,” said Kyle, who played against Pearson as a Wildcat after transferring in from Boston College for the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons. “We have three really good hockey playing schools in the U.P. From point-to-point, we’re five hours. We should all be in the same conference and we should always being playing, in my opinion, four times.”

Games between Tech and Northern are often the biggest draws of the season, even more so than visits by the Big Ten’s Wolverines, Spartans, Badgers and Gophers, except for last season when the Wildcats and Huskies met twice on Tuesdays.

In 2011-12, Northern out-drew two Tech games against Wisconsin at the SDC, while at the Berry, Tech beat out three of four NMU games against MSU and UM.

In 2010-11, Northern’s attendance in two games against Tech was on par with home dates against Michigan, while in Houghton, a Tuesday game for MTU featuring the Wildcats drew more fans than three out of four games against Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“These are games our fans want to see,” Kyle said. “I’ve been here 12 years and those are the games when the building has the most energy – our building has the most energy, their building has the most energy. It is a rivalry and its a fierce rivalry, but it’s not a bitter rivalry.”

Playing four times in a season – both times on back-to-back nights in Houghton and Marquette – won’t just help the pocket books of NMU and Tech, but it should stoke the fires between the two schools that are separated by a 100-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 41.

The last time Tech and Northern played four times in a season was 2004-05. In four games that year, the Huskies and Wildcats combined for 136 penalties spanning 340 minutes.

That number was inflated by a line brawl at the end of the second period in Game 3 of the series in Marquette that accounted for 40 of the 47 penalties and 160 of the 191 minutes that night.

Each side was left with five less bodies to start the third period of a 3-3 tie.

“It’s an intense rivalry,” Pearson said. “A lot of the players know each other. They played against each other already and obviously bragging rights from the U.P. (are at stake), especially in our neck of the woods.

“If you have to beat anybody at all during the year, it better be Northern Michigan for us. Obviously we have had a pretty good rivalry with Michigan and Michigan State in hockey, but I’ve learned.”

The Huskies (0-3-1) haven’t beaten anyone yet this season having lost and tied at Minnesota Duluth to start the season before losing twice at Notre Dame last weekend.

The Wildcats (1-3-0) earned their first win of the season last weekend in a split at home against Nebraska-Omaha. The weekend before, NMU was swept at Wisconsin.

Despite the lackluster starts against tough competition, Pearson said both teams have a chance to finish in the top four in the WCHA and he feels a lot better about that statement heading into the first weekend of league play than he did before the season started.

“I think both teams are going to have a chance to finish in the top half of the league and I think that only enhances the importance of the game,” Pearson said.”I know a lot more about our team now than I did a month ago, and for the most part, I’m a lot more confident than I was a month ago. We had some big question marks and a lot of those question marks have been answered, even though we haven’t won the games.”