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Next up: Hockey royalty

Saturday, April 12, 2014
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— Final update on my cheesesteak quest: abject failure.

Due to schedule constraints, it looks like I won’t be making it to Geno’s Steaks nor Pat’s King of Steaks.

Appearances to the contrary, this is a column about the University of Minnesota hockey.

As universally recognized iconic images, Geno’s and Pat’s help to define the City of Brotherly Love, which the Union College hockey team will depart this weekend either as national champions or as an update in next season’s chunky Golden Gophers media guide.

The Dutchmen aren’t fighting this stigma so much as shrugging it off, but the truth is, when a gazillion viewers turn on the game today at 7:30 on ESPN, just shy of a gazillion will see the “U” on their jerseys and wonder, “Uhhh . . .?”

They’ll suffer no such moment of dismissiveness when they see Minnesota, because, well, Herb Brooks and Miracle on Ice and 21 Frozen Fours and five national championships . . .

One of the few iconic programs in men’s Division I hockey, Minnesota’s current team boasts 14 NHL draft picks to Union’s one.

The mostly homegrown program pulls them off the ponds of the Land of 10,000 Lakes with visions of national championships.

Union has reached a point where it wasn’t outlandish to expect to be in this game at the Wells Fargo Center tonight.

There’s a profound difference between expecting to be in it this year and expecting to be in it every year, though.

“That’s kind of what is expected at Minnesota, is that we make this game,” the Gophers’ Nate Condon said. “Guys grow up wanting to play in national championships and wanting to win titles.”

Of Minnesota’s 14 NHL draftees, there are an equal number of upperclassmen and underclassmen, to give you an idea of what an NHL factory looks like.

That translates to the obvious: current head coach Don Lucia has won national titles in 2002 and 2003, and Brooks won in 1974, ’76 and ’79 before beating the Soviets and Finland for the 1980 Olympic gold with a team that had nine Golden Gophers on the final roster. Since 1977, Minnesota has had 79 players make the U.S. National Junior Team.

“It’s college hockey royalty, really,” Union captain Mat Bodie said.

The image of Union hockey has skyrocketed in recent years, but now that we’ve reached the rarefied air of the national championship, it’s a whole new unexplored level.

The gold “M” on the Minnesota jerseys will look right at home; the “U” on Union’s jerseys will not, even if the players wearing them will.

“Until you win a national championship, people aren’t going to respect your program the same as other teams that have won it,” Bodie said. “There’s a lot in a name. You say Minnesota or North Dakota or Boston College, those are teams that ring throughout college hockey. Union’s not quite at that point, and hopefully, we can change that.”

Union goalie Colin Stevens brings a different perspective to the identity issue. He grew up in Niskayuna, so the “U” has always had iconic status for him.

“I remember going to the games when I was a kid,” he said. “Me and my teammates from youth hockey would go to the game, and it was always kind of a dream of ours, you know, wouldn’t it be cool to be out on that ice one day?

“I was just lucky enough to have that opportunity. Now having that opportunity seems a little surreal, but it’s awesome and I don’t take it for granted.”

The Dutchmen have enough experience playing teams like this that you can simply throw out the intimidation factor.

That was Boston College, winners of five national championships, including three in the last six years, that the Dutchmen beat in the semifinals on Thursday.

Including Minnesota, three of Union’s last four opponents have won a national title.

“If you ask the casual fan, they’ll probably say, yeah, Union’s the underdog just off the name,” Bodie said. “It makes it fun, but at the end of the day, it’s just another hockey game.”

So why not Union?

It’s just a shirt.

I’ll miss Geno’s and Pat’s, but it’s just a bread roll. Anyway, my friend Joe has sampled both and, while admitting hometown bias, prefers Morrette’s on Erie Boulevard.

Stevens hasn’t tried Morrette’s, but he said, “Another good place for cheesesteak is LaGioia on Van Vranken Avenue. I think they have a special every Wednesday.

“Try it out. Give it a try, for sure.”

 
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