ST. PAUL — Josh Nelson grew up in Wisconsin, but he fully understands and appreciates the tradition of hockey one state to the west.
“I’m a Wisconsin boy,” the Minnesota State senior defenseman said, “but that Minnesota hockey tradition is as rich as it gets.”
Some of that tradition will be on display today and Saturday at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center in the inaugural North Star College Cup tournament.
The event includes four of Minnesota’s five Division I men’s college teams. Minnesota State will play Minnesota Duluth at 4 p.m. today. St. Cloud State and Minnesota will play at 7 p.m. On Saturday, the two losers will square off for third place and the winners will play each other for the trophy.
Bemidji State is the odd team out this year but will rotate in next year. Minnesota will be a permanent fixture in the field.
The tournament was formed in the wake of the breakup of the WCHA. All five teams had been in the league together, but now only MSU and Bemidji remain. Minnesota is now in the Big Ten, and Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud are in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“It’s good to see the old programs stay together for this,” Nelson said. “It’s definitely pretty cool.”
Organizers were hoping to put on an event similar to Boston’s popular Beanpot, which includes that city’s four D-I teams (Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern) and has been played for more than 60 years.
Mavericks junior Brett Stern said that amid friends’ disappointment about all of the college hockey realignment last summer, there was always a glimmer of excitement about the start North Star College Cup.
“Everybody would bring it up,” he said. “They’d say, ‘I heard there’s a Minnesota tournament at the Xcel.’ A lot of people know about it. It will be a special event.”
Stern, a Lino Lakes native, said the competition should be fierce and not just because the teams all hail from the same state.
“Minnesota is No. 1 in the nation, and St. Cloud is in the top five,” he said. “You look at us, and we’ve made an impact, and Duluth has made an impact around their league. I’m looking forward to any team we play against. We’re going to have to bring our game every night.”
On Wednesday, the tournament’s trophy was unveiled by Minnesota. According to a press release, it was designed by Sterling Trophy of Anoka, made out of a red oak tree from the Glen Skrove Farm in Mora and turned by Doug Johannsen of Ramsey. The hickory base, hand-crafted trophy by Bill Durant of Anoka, is topped with a birch star surrounded with pucks from all five teams.
But there’s more on the line than a trophy and in-state bragging rights. The final nonconference games of the season for the Mavericks likely have postseason repercussions. Wins or losses could mean significant moves up or down the Pairwise Rankings, which determine the 16-team NCAA tournament field.
“Especially coming off the weekend we just had,” sophomore forward Dylan Margonari, a Pennsylvania native said, referring to the Mavericks’ WCHA sweep over then-No. 2-ranked Ferris State. “We put a statement down; now we hope to follow it up.”
Minnesota is first in the Pairwise, and St. Cloud State is eighth. Minnesota State is 17th, and Minnesota Duluth is 25th.
The Mavericks played a series at Minnesota in November and lost both games, 4-1 and 3-0.
“Any time you play another team in the state, it’s kind of an easy game to get up for,” Margonari said. “We have to bring our game no matter who we play.”