In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an overlooked rivalry is renewed.

Michigan Tech hockey
The site of Dee Stadium in Houghton, Michigan claims to be the birthplace of professional hockey. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1927. (City of Houghton, Michigan)

The world of college hockey has changed a lot in the last couple of years. This season has been unusual, to say the least.

Some things are predictable. North Dakota and Boston University occupy the top two spots in the polls. Others that have gone according to plan are Minnesota State leading the WCHA, Bowling Green starting to become a solid program again and NCHC teams like Miami, Denver and Minnesota-Duluth having good seasons. If I had to make some predictions today, I’d say the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament will go to the Fighting Sioux (until a name is chosen, they will remain the Sioux to me), BU, MSU and Miami. Bowling Green, UMass-Lowell and Duluth could also snatch a number-1 spot.

Some other programs have been surprising. Harvard (Harvard!) is number three in the rankings, arguably the favorite heading into the Beanpot Tournament. The Crimson haven’t won the tournament since 1993 and this is their best chance to end that drought. Other surprises include Union falling from defending national champs to out of the national polls, Penn State(!) leading the Big Ten despite only being a program for three years and Wisconsin having potentially the worst season a major hockey program has ever had. The Badgers are 2-11-1 and were winless until the end of November. To watch a team go from making the NCAA Tournament last year to Big Ten cellar dweller is remarkable.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the success of Michigan Tech. The Huskies are having a fantastic year, starting 10-0. They were briefly the number-one team in the country. Tech was even featured in the New York Times, so that should tell you how big of the season this has been for the school and for the city of Houghton.

The Huskies’ accomplishments bring me to the real topic of this column. Tech and archrival Northern Michigan are playing a home-and-home series this weekend. It’s their biggest rivalry series in a long time. Tech hasn’t been a legitimately good franchise in more than 30 years. The Huskies last made the NCAAs was in 1981 and haven’t won a national title in 40 years. Meanwhile, Northern Michigan has also struggled on a national scale. The Wildcats made the NCAAs in 2010, but haven’t been a contender since the early ’90s; they won a national title in 1991. NMU is sitting outside the polls right now, but has recently battled Minnesota State and Bowling Green to ties. The Wildcats are fighting for a WCHA home playoff series and if they keep playing at the level they are (and Ferris State continues to stumble), they should get it.

There are some great rivalries in college hockey such as North Dakota-Minnesota, Denver-Colorado College and the previously mentioned Beanpot. Tech-NMU is an underrated rivalry that will finally get some attention this weekend. It’s been quite a while since that happened and I think it’ll be good for both the area and the national stage.

This rivalry is particularly important to me (I cover one of the teams) but I also think the U.P. is vastly overlooked. When most people think of Michigan, three things usually come to mind: Detroit, cars and sports. Motown, to a lesser extent. The Upper Peninsula doesn’t get acknowledged much, both by the Michigan legislature and by the rest of the nation. Ice hockey is the sport up here and it’s quite obvious.

Red Wings gear is everywhere. People love talking about the game. If you were to come up here, especially at this point in the year, you’d see mounds of snow, cars in the ditch and have a cold wind scarring your face. You might have a deer (or two or three) bound out in front of your vehicle and wonder why you were up here in the first place. At the same time, you’d see how important hockey is up here. In the early morning and late at night, you’d see both kids and adults playing pickup games on ponds and makeshift rinks around town. I’ve seen people pull over to watch at two in the morning. I’ve even done it once or twice. Kids up here don’t dream about playing in the NFL like the southern states or the NBA in big cities. They want to play hockey. The dream is the NHL, but most are satisfied with just playing in college and proudly representing the area.

The arenas are cold with metal roofs and no heating. You’d see your breath in front of you and be wearing layers in the stands, but you’d enjoy the passion for the game that you see in front of you, which is demonstrated visibly at the local colleges.

There are three Division 1 programs in the U.P.: Northern, Tech and Lake Superior State. The Lakers are similar to Northern in that their glory years were in the ’90s. Lake State won two national titles during that time period under head coach Jeff Jackson, who is now at Notre Dame. However, the Lakers are seen as the black sheep of the three teams. I haven’t been able to figure out the main reason why that is the case. Some reasons I’ve heard: hockey has been traditionally bigger in the western part of the peninsula, and the long tradition at Tech and the early success of NMU, helped build the rivalry. Lake State also doesn’t have a football program, which helps enhance the dislike between the Huskies and Wildcats.

It might be a mere regional rivalry, but it has everyone’s attention in the region. Both games are being televised in the U.P. and fans are willing to travel to each other’s home site. When asked about the upcoming series after Saturday’s game with Minnesota State, NMU players said there are many reasons why they hate the Huskies, but the coaching staff urged them not to vent their hatred to people with recorders.

It’s going to be an interesting weekend. Tech is making its case for a bid to the NCAAs and to fight for the WCHA title. Northern wants to sweep its main enemy and build momentum for the rest of the season as they gradually build up their program’s national profile. My hope is that the series will be intense and exciting so that hockey fans will start paying attention to the U.P again. It’s a region where hockey thrives, and it shouldn’t be overlooked anymore.

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