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Border Battle Meets State of Hockey Celebration

Minnesota travels to Wisconsin for Hockey Day showdown

by Nate Wells / Special to

Luke Kunin has experienced the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry firsthand. Games between the two for the Wisconsin sophomore captain are games to look forward to, just as they have been for generations of Golden Gophers and Badgers players before him. They get heated at times.

This weekend, however, adds an additional element to the normally festive games. For the second time in three seasons, the University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin play one another on Hockey Day Minnesota.

For Kunin, the 15th overall selection by the Minnesota Wild at the 2016 NHL Draft, and fellow Wild draft pick, Gophers sophomore defenseman Jack Sadek (2015 seventh-round pick), it will be a new experience.

Two seasons ago -- before both players were in college -- the Gophers defeated Wisconsin 5-2 in Minneapolis. This year, Hockey Day crosses state lines temporarily for a 5 p.m. game at the Kohl Center in Madison. 

On Friday, alumni from both programs will skate in a game outdoors at Lowell Park in Stillwater. 

"It's one of my favorite rivalries growing up just because the games were so intense. Sometimes they'd get a little bloody," said Minnesota redshirt senior forward Connor Reilly about his experiences playing Wisconsin and Hockey Day Minnesota. "(Hockey Day) is a truly special day. It's not even one moment. It's the whole thing together that reminds you of why you play the game, going back to your roots on the pond playing with your buddies in youth hockey.

"That's where it all starts."

The Gophers have been an annual Hockey Day Minnesota staple, having gone 6-3-1 in 10 previous appearances. 

Players on both teams participated in the outdoors as high schoolers. As a precursor to their college careers in 2013, Wisconsin's Grant Besse and Dan Labosky (Benilde-St. Margaret's) played against Minnesota's Jake Bischoff (Grand Rapids) in cold wind and low temperatures on Lake Pokegama.

A native of Lakeville, Sadek grew up with Hockey Day Minnesota. Unfortunately, he missed out on the opportunity to play outdoors by a year. 

"That would have been cool," said Sadek, who has a goal and two assists in 16 games playing a shutdown defense role for Minnesota. "I remember watching the Gophers and the Wild game, and the high school games all back-to-back on the same night. It's a really cool day."

Minnesota (13-5-2, 5-1-0-0) enters this weekend tied for first in the Big Ten while riding a six-game winning streak and ranked seventh in the nation. The Gophers have been finding success offensively by using their depth. Tyler Sheehy (Burnsville) leads the team in goals (14) and points (28), but is one of six Minnesota players with at least 17 points. As a team it is averaging 3.8 goals per game.

Special teams has also played a role. Minnesota's power play is fifth in the nation at 23.9 percent. The penalty kill has stopped 23 consecutive power plays over six-plus games.

"We're on a little streak here getting pucks in deep and getting to work down low below the goal line," Sadek said. "Just keep playing like we've been playing. It's been successful. I don't know why we'd want to change it."

On the other side stands a much different Badger team after a couple down years for one of college hockey's traditional powers. Under first-year head coach Tony Granato, Wisconsin (10-7-1, 3-1-0-0 Big Ten) has nearly matched its win total of the past two seasons before the end of January. 

Some positive aspects of those previous Badger teams remain, such as Besse, the 2013 Mr. Hockey Award winner. Much has been discarded. Another year of development and new coaching has Wisconsin averaging over a goal per game more than it scored last season.

To Kunin, who leads Wisconsin with 13 goals in 17 games, there is a noticeable difference to this year's Badgers. Only the second sophomore ever named Wisconsin's captain (he also captained Team USA to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships), he tries to lead by example and outworking everybody.

"We're a lot more confident. There's a new energy in our locker room and a new vibe around the whole Wisconsin program," Kunin said. "I think we're all winners and we're not happy with losing. It's not acceptable to us.

"(Granato) brings everything. The main thing is how competitive he is and the experience I think is second to none. He obviously played at the highest level, he's coached at the highest level. He know what it takes to win and that's what we want to do. It's been good so far."

Kunin didn't grow up watching Hockey Day Minnesota. The Chesterfield, Missouri native is not one of the six Minnesota natives on this year's Badgers team.

Still, Kunin cannot wait to cross it off his list Saturday.

"Some of the guys here who are from Minnesota have relayed the message to me about the importance," he said. "I'm happy to be able to play in it."

The same holds true for Sadek and everyone playing in the alumni and Madison games for that matter. Getting to experience Hockey Day firsthand, whether it's for the first time or one has grown up with it over the years, ends up being something to look forward every in the State of Hockey. It spans generations.

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