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Gophers Alumni Bring One Axe Back to Minnesota

Former U of M stars outlast Wisconsin counterparts in first-ever alumni game between rivals

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

STILLWATER -- It's been more than a dozen years since the team in maroon and gold has walked off a field with an axe in hand.

University of Minnesota fans will have settle for carrying one off the ice instead.

In a first-of-its-kind event between the two storied college hockey programs, the Golden Gophers alumni defeated a team of former University of Wisconsin players 7-4 at Lowell Park on Friday night as part of Hockey Day Minnesota festivities.

Video: Gopher/Badgers Alumni Game Recap

Before the game, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, an honorary Badger coach, announced that the teams would play for a makeshift axe atop a hockey stick, a variation of Paul Bunyan's Axe, which is awarded to the winner of the annual Minnesota-Wisconsin football game each season.

While the Badgers have won each of the past 13 games the schools have played on the gridiron, the former Gophers exacted a bit of revenge on the ice Friday night. 

"Well, we've got one axe," said former Gophers and Wild defenseman Jordan Leopold, who won the Hobey Baker Award at the U of M in 2002. "It gives us a little bit of pride out here. It makes for some good fun and good for our hockey community."

Pat O'Leary, the current boys hockey coach at Wayzata High School, netted a hat trick to lead Minnesota to the victory on its home soil.

But the game was about far more than the final result. 

While the Gophers and Badgers have a heated rivalry in just about everything these schools compete in, the action on the ice Friday was more about camaraderie and sharing old stories than it was about getting the win.

Don't get them wrong: The Minnesota boys will take the victory. After all, a win over Wisconsin in just about anything will make it difficult to peel the smile off the face of a Gopher.

Just ask honorary Gophers coach Lou Nanne, who was grinning ear to ear as he shook hands with the former Badgers afterward. Nanne, who also served as honorary coach of the North Stars team at last year's Stadium Series alumni game against the Chicago Blackhawks, had a simple answer when asked what his favorite part of the night was.

"Winning," he said, before doubling down. "Winning, winning, winning. There is no other part."

Always special to beat Wisconsin, right?

"It's always special to beat anybody," he fired back. "That's what makes it fun."

Even in a losing effort, the night was special for former Badger Matt Doman, who will take his normal position behind the bench as head coach of the Stillwater boys team on Saturday when it faces Eden Prairie on the same sheet of ice.

Doman, who scored a goal and added an assist with a number of his current players watching, has spent much of the past week finalizing details of the weekend and making sure everything was set to go off without issue.

Friday, Doman was able to don the cardinal and white Badger sweater once again and enjoy the fruits of his community's labor, which has been a labor of love.

"I keep it simple, go to the net hard, that's what coach tells me to do to get my ice time," Doman said with a chuckle, seemingly telling himself what he's told his own players to do hundreds of times.

"To put the jersey back on and get to play with these guys, and get to know a lot of these Gopher guys, at a place like this? It turned out to be a perfect night," he said.

Doman even joked that the former Badgers were going to let the Gophers alums keep the axe, even if Wisconsin had come out on top.

"It's been so long [since they've won in football], I don't even know if they knew what it was for sure," Doman quipped. "We figured, as a group, that it's just better to spread that wealth and in the spirit of Hockey Day, it'd be good to let them have it."

Regardless, Minnesota won it the hard way, digging out of an early 1-0 hole with four consecutive goals to grab a 4-1 lead in the first period. The Badgers got as close as 4-2 before another couple of goals extended the Gophers' lead for good.

With Friday's game marking the inaugural alumni game between the schools, the mutual hope was that the matchup will become an annual -- or at least bi-annual -- tradition between the former players.

"These are [Badger] guys I watched, too," Leopold said. "My grandparents had a place in western Wisconsin and we used to get Badger games on the bunny ears and watch them at night. It's pretty neat, and to get a chance to do it when we're old like this and we'd never thought we'd get an opportunity, I think we're pretty blessed."

"This is great; it was a great rivalry we've had with Wisconsin and Minnesota," Nanne said. "These guys all really had a lot of fun. They came here and enjoyed one another and we played a fun game."

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