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Amsoil practice brings back fond memories for Wild's former Gophers

Once in enemy territory, Wild's trio of 'U' stars warmly greeted Tuesday in Duluth

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

DULUTH, Minn. -- As Wild forward Rem Pitlick was signing autographs for fans following practice at Amsoil Arena on Tuesday, the former Golden Gopher All-American was presented with an interesting quandary.

Over the railing came a maroon and gold hockey sweater, waiting for his signature. 

But this sweater wasn't boasting the block 'M' Pitlick has signed dozens of times over the course of his career. It had the insignia of the Bulldog.

But like a good Minnesota boy, Pitlick smiled and signed his name to the jersey.

Hey, at least they're both University of Minnesota sister schools, right?

"I signed it, but I think it might have been against the code," Pitlick said with a smile.

Of course, Pitlick is partial to 3M Arena at Mariucci, but in terms of road trips, venturing 150 miles north on Interstate 35 was one of his preferred stops in three years at the U. 

With the Bulldogs and Gophers in different conferences, Pitlick played just two games here in three years, assisting on a goal during the first game of his sophomore season. 

Video: Marcus Foligno practice update in Duluth

"I'll have to say this was my second-favorite place to play," Pitlick admitted. "I loved Penn State, but Duluth, I think it was my junior year, we opened up here and the fans were already here like 15 minutes before warmup even started. The music was going, the fans were really into it and the student section was here. I really enjoyed that. This was one of my favorite places to play."

There was good reason for Bulldog fans to be a little early to the arena that night, and there was good reason for the building to boast a whole bunch of energy: UMD unfurled its 2018 National Championship banner, the second of three in school history. The Bulldogs would add their third later that season, becoming the first team in more than a decade to win back-to-back national titles. 

Needless to say, it was a bit of a different atmosphere on Tuesday, as the Wild skated at Amsoil in its final true practice of training camp. It was also the final act of team bonding the group had one a 2 1/2 day trip to the North Shore that featured a Ryder Cup-style golf match and a pig roast on Monday. 

It's not every day you've got 1,000 or so fans watching a practice, and it's extremely rare for a Golden Gopher to get a round of applause as he skates onto the ice in the Bulldogs' home barn. 

Video: Dean Evason practice update from Duluth

Old rivalries die hard, but when you've traded in the maroon and gold for the forest green and Iron Range red, Bulldog fans will make a special exception.

The same was the case for Wild forward Nick Bjugstad, who had a bit more game exposure to Amsoil in his three years with the U of M. 

When Bjugstad was in college, the Gophers and Bulldogs were each in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, so not only were annual matchups the norm, but it usually involved a pair of games in each series instead of the home-and-home.

Bjugstad had plenty of success in Duluth too, scoring a goal and assisting on five others in four career games here as a Gopher. 

Minnesota went 2-1-1 in those games, including a thrilling 5-4 overtime victory in 2011, where the Gophers twice blew leads, then fell behind with two minutes left in regulation. Bjugstad earned the first assist on Erik Haula's tying goal with under a minute to play before Minnesota escaped with the victory 4:04 into overtime. 

"I just remember the student section behind the net and how crazy that was," Bjugstad said. "They had some really good teams when I was here as well. Duluth was definitely a rival and a powerhouse, I'd say, and it was a fun building to come in and play in."

Video: Goligoski practice update from Duluth

Wild defenseman Alex Goligoski never got the pleasure of playing a college game at Amsoil Arena. His career with the Gophers came before Amsoil opened in December of 2010. Instead, the Grand Rapids native played his collegiate games in town across the parking lot at the DECC. 

But as a proud native of the 218 in northern Minnesota, he was happy the Wild was able to bring the NHL - at least for a day - to a part of the state that is hockey-crazed 365 days a year.

"It was a fun day for us and for the fans to be able to come out and see us play up here," Goligoski said. "For them to see the Wild up here is a cool thing and I think everybody enjoyed it."

Photo by Brandon McCauley

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