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Legislator, Bemidji native, laments changing WCHA

BEMIDJI – There’s not a whole lot the Minnesota Legislature can do to preserve the rivalries that will be affected by the pending college hockey realignment.

But Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Bemidji native, introduced legislation this week that is less of a proposal and more of a statement.

His bill would appropriate $800,000 to the University of Minnesota every year they play the University of North Dakota, a fierce rival, in hockey.

“My intention is just to highlight rivalry between UND and the U of M,” said Winkler, a DFLer representing the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley. He added in-state rivalries, like between Bemidji State and the Gophers, will also be affected by upcoming realignment of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

The bill’s introduction comes as teams from WCHA play in their final Final Five tournament this weekend before significant realignment next year. Minnesota will play in the newly-formed Big Ten Hockey Conference with members of the existing Big Ten, while North Dakota will join the National Collegiate Hockey Conference with the likes of St. Cloud State, Colorado College and Western Michigan.

In-state schools Bemidji State and Minnesota State, Mankato, however, will remain in the WCHA along newcomers like Lake Superior State and Bowling Green State.

“Things are changing, but it’d be nice to see some of the old rivalries go on,” Winkler said, acknowledging how important the “Gopher weekend” was while growing up in Bemidji.

He played high school hockey here before graduating in 1994.

“(I) wasn’t a very good player, but I was on the team,” he said.

He went on to pursue studies at Harvard University and studied law at the University of Minnesota. He was elected to the state House in 2006.

Winkler met some criticism Thursday for the bill proposal, but was quick to point out it was introduced a statement and not as a plan to spend taxpayer dollars on hockey.

The bill language itself contains a couple jokes.

“The outcome of the game shall not affect the amount appropriated under this section,” it states in a bureaucratic tone.

 And the $800,000 figure references the University of Minnesota paying that amount to avoid playing the University of North Carolina in football.

“We’re not going to start paying $800,000 to play a hockey game,” Winkler said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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