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After decades of waiting for a title, UMD hockey fans go wild

Patrons at Grandma's Sports Garden, including many UMD students, erupt in wild cheers at the moment the Bulldogs scored the winning goal Saturday night to win the national title. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
UMD students at Grandma's Sports Garden, including junior Katie Hautman (left), react to a tense moment during overtime of the Bulldogs' win over Michigan in Saturday's title game. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
John Moerke and his brother Tom, of Duluth, react to a great play by UMD during the third period of Saturday's title game against Michigan. The two both graduated from UMD. (Bob King / News Tribune)3 / 3

Eleven hundred voices yelled as one.

"UMD! UMD! UMD!"

The atmosphere at Grandma's Sports Garden in Canal Park had been electric all night as the crowd filling the popular nightspot watched the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs battle the Michigan Wolverines for college hockey's ultimate crown on ESPN.

When UMD fans were shown, they cheered. When the UMD pep band was shown, they cheered. When someone in the stands at the Xcel Energy Center held up a sign with the words "Duluth The Pride of Minnesota," they cheered.

And when Kyle Schmidt of Hermantown scored the winning goal at 3:22 in overtime, they erupted into an enormous, hand-slapping, hugging, arms-upraised shout. In seconds, that was followed by the thunderous, spontaneous "UMD!" chant.

It was a satisfying moment for John Moerke, 33, of Duluth, a certified nursing assistant who went to UMD. He has been a fan "a long, long time" Moerke said earlier -- since 1984, the last time UMD was in a national championship game. But that time they lost, to Bowling Green, in four overtimes.

"I haven't seen this in more than 20-plus years," an ecstatic Moerke said after the end. "It is awesome to see the Bulldogs win the championship."

Kris Jackson, general manager of Grandma's Sports Garden, estimated more than 1,100 people were in the building by the time the game reached the third period. "We are a very proud supporter of UMD athletics all year long," he said.

Asked to compare the crowd with the last time the Minnesota Vikings were in the NFC championship game, Jackson said, "This is better, being the hometown team -- Duluth."

Steve and Carrie Sutherland and Kristi Lovis were seated at an empty table near the entrance. They had been handing out beads and window stickers to the fans on behalf of the UMD Alumni Association, but they had long since run out.

"Not everyone can be down in the Twin Cities," Lovis said, and Steve Sutherland added: "We can still be up here in Duluth showing our support."

The excitement built as the evening went on at Duluth's popular gathering places.

Almost every spot with a view of the big screen was taken at Dubh Linn Pub & Billiards on Superior Street by the time the first puck was dropped.

Fans watched stoically through the first minutes of the game, as neither team was drawing first blood.

Marty Hill, 40, of Cloquet was saving space for friends who were still at the Arrowhead Home & Builders Show at the DECC. Hill grew up in Michigan, "But I'm pulling for UMD," he said. He went to school at Central Michigan University during a time when Michigan dominated in hockey. "I came to detest Michigan hockey," he said.

What would it mean for the region if UMD won a hockey championship?

"It'd just be incredible," said Hill, a technical writer. "It's such a boost for the program. It would just be awesome."

At a nearby table, Tom Reger, 35, of Duluth, was confident of the outcome. "The Bulldogs are going to win a championship," he said.

Eight minutes were left in the first period with no score, but Reger was figuring on a 3-2 UMD win ... in overtime. "They're down in the zone most of the time," he said. "They're going to score."

How did he plan to celebrate? "I'm going to get some sushi.

Old Chicago in Canal Park was packed, eyes of maroon-clad fans focused on the restaurant's many TV screens.

"We came here Thursday night and it was good luck so we decided to come back," said Laura Dahleen, 39, who was with her husband, Per, 36. "It's fun to watch when it's full of fans. It's fun to be here."

It was between the first and second periods, and the Bulldogs were trailing, 1-0. Did that make her nervous? "I'm going to be nervous whether we're ahead or not," she said. "But I believe in them."

Per Dahleen, who went to UMD, said a hockey championship would be huge.

"We've got a national championship in football," he said. "But the hockey team has been in the spotlight for years and years. Just look around you. There are a lot of people here who want to see them win."

Alex Patnoe, a senior at Duluth East High School, was watching the game with some of his friends. He's had a good senior year, with the Greyhound basketball and hockey teams making the state tournament.

"It's been a great sports year," he said. "I'm a huge Packers fan also. It's one of the best sports years of my life."

Like Per Dahleen, Patnoe pointed to what the Bulldog football team already had accomplished. "Two national championships in one year is a pretty good accomplishment," Patnoe said.

Sammie Hoehn, Allison Baker and Courtney Litchke, all seniors at UMD, were enjoying the early part of the game at Old Chicago with plans to hit Grandma's Sports Garden later.

"It's going to be a big celebration regardless of whether we win or lose at Grandma's," Litchke said.

But Hoehn wasn't worried about a Bulldog loss, even if they were behind after the first period.

"No. No. No," she said. "They're just trying to make it an interesting game."

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