The third annual North Star College Cup will take place this weekend, and the tournament has already taken hold in Minnesota.
The event — which was created after conference realignment separated the five Minnesota Division I hockey programs from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association — will be held at the Xcel Energy Center, the same venue that used to host the WCHA Final Five.
“It brings the past back to the present,” Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore said. “That WCHA Final Five was such a big tournament to the Twin Cities area, to the Metro area and really to the whole state of Minnesota. It’s gone right now, but [the North Star College Cup] can at least bring that back for the weekend.”
In its third year of existence, the event will feature Bemidiji State, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato and the University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota-Duluth is not participating, as one state school has been left out of the tournament every year.
The five teams used to play each other at least two times a season and compete for conference titles, but now they have to schedule one another for out-of-conference games. The new dynamic has brought a different feel to the games, Minnesota State-Mankato senior forward Teddy Blueger said.
“It’s something that stands out in the calendar right away. It’s kind of a different atmosphere, different feel, different significance to the game I’d say than the games we play in conference,” Blueger said. “There’s fans for all four teams, so we get a good crowd usually in a fun atmosphere and great building.”
The Xcel Energy Center normally houses the state’s professional hockey team, the Minnesota Wild, and its maximum capacity of 20,000 is about double that of Mariucci Arena.
Minnesota State-Mankato head coach Mike Hastings said it’s one of the best hockey arenas in the country.
“I just think it’s an environment that you want to be a part of,” Hastings said. “It’s the best that you can have an opportunity to play in.”
Entering the tournament, three of the four state schools are ranked in the USCHO poll. St. Cloud State is No. 3, Minnesota State-Mankato is No. 19 and the Gophers are No. 20.
Bemidji State is the only unranked team in this year’s tournament, with a .500 overall record, but the Beavers won the tournament last year.
“There’s no question that the parity in this year’s group is probably stronger than it was last year,” Serratore said. “The team to beat in this tournament is St. Cloud State. … They’re probably the favorite in the tournament.”
The Gophers are appearing in their third consecutive tournament and will participate every year because they are the permanent host of the event. Minnesota won the tournament in its first year with a shootout victory over Duluth, but the team fell to last place a year ago.
This season the Gophers will play Bemidji State in the first round on Saturday, while St. Cloud State and Mankato will play on the other side of the bracket.
“I look forward to the tournament because it’s also a celebration of the Division I hockey programs in the state of Minnesota,” Hastings said. “It’s a positive for hockey throughout the state because it gives the general public an opportunity to go back and see your state teams compete against each other.”