GRAND FORKS, N.D. - This is the time of the year when a Gopher will take on a Terrier, a Greyhound can get beat by an inanimate object like a Buckeye and there are more Lions, Tigers and Wildcats loose than any local zoo would know what to do with.
One source of the immense national interest in major college sports lies in the identity of the schools themselves, right down to the nickname.
But as the University of North Dakota starts the NCAA Division I men's hockey tournament this weekend, the jerseys will look a little bare. The NCAA ban of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo ? deemed "hostile and abusive" by the NCAA ? has officially taken effect despite years of defiance and lingering legal challenges from proud supporters.
That means North Dakota will take the ice in St. Paul, Minn., for its West Regional semifinal game against Western Michigan as, well, North Dakota. The team will don new jerseys without the nickname or the logo for the first time Saturday afternoon. Same for the uniforms of the cheerleaders and band members, too.
"It's sad that we don't get to wear it, but at the same we're trying to win a hockey game against Western Michigan," said captain Mario Lamoureux, the only North Dakota native on the roster. "If anyone's focus is on the jersey or what we have to wear, they should change that right away."
UND ordered 30 new sets of jerseys and socks in each of their three colour schemes ? white, green and black ??? at a cost of $21,000, said Patrick Swanson, the team's director of operations.
The NCAA in 2005 told North Dakota and more than a dozen other schools with American Indian nicknames or logos that to avoid sanctions, they needed to change or obtain permission from local tribes to keep them. Most switched, though some like the Florida State Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewas received tribal permission.
North Dakota has put up quite a fight.
The state passed a law a year ago requiring the school's sports teams to use the nickname and logo, which depicts the profile of an American Indian warrior. That was repealed eight months later and then revived in a referendum campaign that fetched more than 17,000 signatures. The referendum is scheduled for June, when voters will decide whether the law should be kept or repealed. The law is opposed by the university, the state's board of higher education and local politicians, who are ready to put the Fighting Sioux conflict in the past.
Even with the law's fate still up in the air, the NCAA ban means no use of the nickname or logo in post-season play, or else UND would forfeit those games.
The school also is barred from hosting post-season tournaments even though college hockey's Taj Mahal, the $100 million Ralph Engelstad Arena, would be an ideal place for an NCAA regional. The arena has at least 3,000 Fighting Sioux logos in the building, including a 10-foot sketch of the logo embedded in the granite lobby floor.
University leaders have expressed concern that the Big Sky Conference, which has accepted North Dakota for its sports other than hockey, will un-invite UND if the nickname controversy lingers. On a smaller scale, Iowa decided not to invite North Dakota to a track meet next month because of the nickname. Minnesota has long held a policy against playing games against the Fighting Sioux, except in hockey where WCHA conference obligations have matched up the rivals on the ice for decades.
Marc Ryan, the associate athletic director in charge of football scheduling for Minnesota, said it's difficult to speculate about whether the Gophers would have faced North Dakota in recent years had the Fighting Sioux nickname been previously dropped. Minnesota has played several nearby regional opponents from the Football Championship Subdivision including North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State in recent seasons. North Dakota State received $375,000 to come to TCF Bank Stadium.
So the teams themselves have tried to keep their focus on the ice or the court or the field.
"I just stressed to them the right thing is going to happen in the end. It shouldn't affect us right now," men's basketball coach Brian Jones said earlier this month. "They are good young people and care about one another. What they care about is staying together and winning basketball games. As I told them, 'A mascot or a logo never scored a point or got a rebound, got a steal or won a game.'"
It is a source of sentiment and pride, though, one of the reasons for all the fuss. North Dakota's teams were known as the Flickertails until adopting the Fighting Sioux in 1930 after a student newspaper campaign. There are no plans yet to introduce a new one.
"You see the Washington Redskins. You see the Florida State Seminoles. I don't understand. I think it's people with nothing better to do than try to get some attention," said New Jersey Devils standout Zach Parise, one of the 15 former North Dakota players who have appeared in the NHL this season.
Parise, though, echoed the growing sentiment of many supporters of the Fighting Sioux, that the nickname itself is not more important than the success of the teams.
"Make a decision, one way or another, and let's move on," Parise said.
Minnesota Twins president Dave St. Peter, who graduated from UND in 1989 before climbing the ranks of the baseball organization, recalled the controversy even when he was in school.
"As proud as I am of the Fighting Sioux legacy, I'm equally proud of the state of North Dakota's legacy," he said. "I don't think they can take away the name North Dakota. They're going to be playing representing the state of North Dakota. To me, that's still a pretty special honour. I'm not as concerned about the jersey they're going to wear."
The northern prairie can be a cold, dark place in the winter, and without any professional teams the North Dakota hockey program has been the state's favourite entertainment for decades. UND has won seven national championships, and this season's roster has 15 players who've already been drafted by NHL teams. Parise, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues are some of the NHL's best young stars.
Just five hours away from the UND campus, the Xcel Energy Center arena is sure to be filled with UND fans this weekend. On the last word of "Star Spangled Banner," they'll yell "Sioux!" instead of "brave," a long-held tradition at UND games. They'll be wearing those Fighting Sioux jerseys, too.
"I will be wearing mine," said Larry Bellerud, from Fargo, the state's largest city. "I don't want to see it go, but I'm also realistic about it. In the long run, it's just a name."
AP Sports Writers Rick Gano from Rosemont, Ill., and Ira Podell in New York contributed to this report. Campbell reported from St. Paul, Minn.