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Julie and Garrett Bitzer of Bagley proudly wear the jerseys of their favorite Minnesota team before the hockey game Friday night between the Bemidji State University Beavers and University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Split allegiances: Beavers, Gophers fans turn out for big series

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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI – A stone’s throw from the Sanford Center, John and Keegan Schroeder sat patiently waiting for their table at the packed-to-the-gills Green Mill.

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Well, somewhat patiently.

Keegan, 4, sporting maroon-and-gold from head-to-toe, bounced anxiously in his dad’s lap, shouting “Go Gophers!” at passers-by, punctuating each cheer with an emphatic fist pump.

The East Grand Forks natives made the quick trek down Highway 2 to watch their Minnesota Gopher hockey team take on Bemidji State in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series with plenty of intrigue.

It’s the last regular-season weekend in the WCHA as we know it. The Gophers are leaving the league for the new Big Ten Hockey conference, and the Schroeders wanted to see their team in action one final time before everything changes next season.

“I’m not too happy about it,” John said of the impending realignment in the hockey world. “Before you could travel to Bemidji, travel to Duluth, to Grand Forks to see them.

“Now, we’re basically going to have to go to Minneapolis or not see them at all.”

The Gophers will still be playing their instate rivals on a rotating basis – they’re coming to Bemidji early next season. But it won’t mean as much.

This series, though, means a whole ton.

Before Friday night’s game, the Gophers were in second place in the league standings, just two points behind leaders St. Cloud State. They have a chance to win the McNaughton Cup – awarded to the WCHA’s regular-season champion – with a good result this weekend.

“There’s a lot of points on the line,” Schroeder said. “It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere for sure.”

Yes, Bemidji, Gopher fans have invaded your town – if only just for the weekend.

All over the city their presence was made known.

Over at Corner Bar, across the street from the Sanford Center, one could barely find a place to stand.

Downtown at places like Classic Hard Times Saloon and Keg n’ Cork, Beaver fans and Gopher fans intermingled peacefully, eating their pregame meals in relative harmony.

“It’s always nice to come up here and watch a game,” said Brent Jacobson of Spring Lake Park as he and a group of friends sipped beers inside a quit Hard Times two hours before the game. “It’s nice to hack around up here. It’s good to get out of the city.”

Jacobson and his wife, Joan, live in the metro area and have a retirement home on Cass Lake near Walker. Both said they rooted for the Beavers – at least, when they weren’t playing the Gophers.

Their friends – Tony Swan of Champlin and Marty Swan of Minneapolis – had no such divided allegiances.

“I’ve been a Gopher season ticket holder for 10 years,” said Tony, wearing a bright gold Gopher sweater. He doesn’t have season tickets this year, but wanted to bring his mother Marty to a game this season.

None of the four were happy about the fact that the Gophers were leaving the WCHA this year. They’d prefer seeing the Gophers play their regional rivals rather than Michigan or Penn State.

“I hate it,” Tony Swan said. “It’s all about the money. I think it’s cool that they’re going to keep playing the instate teams, but it just won’t be the same.”

All four had tickets for Friday’s game as well as today’s game – which seemed to be the theme for most of the city of Bemidji.

Sarah Stewart was one of the few who wasn’t going.

Stanging outside Hard Times for a smoke break, Stewart wore her green Bemidji State sweater. She’s a Bemidji native and a BSU student, but said it wasn’t worth the money.

“I wish I was going, but it’s just too expensive,” she said. “My husband is a Gopher and I’m a Beaver, but we just couldn’t afford it.”

She’ll be there in spirit, though.

“It’s going to get crazy in my house,” she said with a laugh.

Students divided, too

Inside the arena the amount of maroon and gold stood out – especially with Bemidji State’s “white out” promotion.

Even in the BSU student section, normally a sea of white, one could find dots of maroon as an oasis among the Beaver fans.

Andrew Persson of Plymouth and Jake Grey of Crystal were among them.

“I’ve been a Gopher fan all my life,” Persson said before the game. He wore a maroon sweatshirt, proudly displaying his rooting allegiance. “I can’t just not root for them now.”

Grey agreed – although he was more inconspicuous, not wearing memorabilia from either team.

“I have some friends from high school that play for the Gophers,” he said. “I usually root for the Beavers but not this weekend.”

Across the way, fellow student Joe Sunderman shook his head disapprovingly. He made no bones about who he was cheering for, wearing a white replica Beaver sweater from the Frozen Four era.

“I’m sorry they couldn’t get accepted into the U of M,” he said. “It’s pretty lame that they’re not rooting for their school.”

Jake Cahill also grew up a Gopher fan, but couldn’t bring himself to cheer against his classmates.

“Yeah, I grew up rooting for the U,” Cahill said. “But I don’t root for them anymore. I’ve got to support my school.”

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