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Dave LeGarde: Saints, 'Jackets offer great local rivalry

When local hockey followers think of rivalries, a few immediately come to mind. Certainly UMD/Minnesota is at the top of the list when it comes to the college level, while the Cloquet/Duluth East battles garner the attention of high school fans.

When local hockey followers think of rivalries, a few immediately come to mind. Certainly UMD/Minnesota is at the top of the list when it comes to the college level, while the Cloquet/Duluth East battles garner the attention of high school fans.

While these games bring thousands to area rinks, another match-up with a storied history is also going strong in the Twin Ports, and it will be renewed this weekend in a pair of games with a great deal on the line.

For more than three decades, the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Wisconsin-Superior have gone toe-to-toe as conference and divisional foes. No matter the record of the two teams, the games are always intense, featuring boisterous fan bases and a charged atmosphere unlike any other in small-college hockey.

The rivalry began taking shape in 1976, when the upstart Yellowjackets surprised the defending champion Saints 8-5 in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championship game. The Saints, a powerhouse at the time, used the loss as a motivational tool and regained the title the following year.

In the seasons that followed, UWS began to flourish while CSS struggled as the teams made a transition to Division III and the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association. The 'Jackets seemed more suited for the league's physical style of play, and used it to great advantage in dominating the series through the next several years.

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Despite consistent success, UWS was frustrated in numerous attempts to win a Division III national title. Championship game defeats in 1994, 1997 and 1999 were bitter pills to swallow, and left many wondering if the program would ever be able to capture the elusive prize.

Finally, in 2002, a Yellowjacket squad worked its way to the final game, where they surprised a talented Norwich team 3-2 in overtime.

Under second-year coach Dan Stauber, the program had at last made it to the top.

Since that time, UWS has battled to stay among the elite. More than competitive, they've been one of the better teams in a very difficult conference. Though another national title has not yet materialized, they are still on par with the league's best.

The Saints, meanwhile, have seen their fortunes take a turn for the better in recent years. Since hiring Mark Wick as head coach in 2004, the program has improved considerably, going from a conference doormat to a rising star on the national scene.

In 2007, the Saints took a major step forward, shocking the host Yellowjackets in an overtime playoff thriller on their way to the NCHA championship game. A tough loss to highly regarded St. Norbert did little to dampen the achievement.

Last season, CSS put together a 20-win season, and climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings. A defeat at the hands of UW-Stout was a disappointing finish, but it seems to have made the Saints a more focused group this year.

Coming into this weekend, both teams have played well. The Saints (6-2-2 overall) are in second place in the NCHA after splitting two games with leader St. Norbert last weekend.

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The Yellowjackets (7-3-1), are looking to make-up ground as the season nears its halfway point.

A big advantage for the Saints this weekend is being able to play on home ice. Though it's just a short trip across the bridge for the 'Jackets, they'll have to be ready for the Saints and their rabid fans. Sell-outs are expected both nights, with advanced ticket sales being used to ease the overflow crowds.

It's great to see this rivalry with both programs at their best. When UWS was in control for several years, skating and skill were often overshadowed by physical play and penalties. Both teams now rely on a mix of speed and strength.

It should be a great weekend of hockey. Cold weather, a full house and an electric atmosphere should bring out the best in each of them.

Budgeteer sports columnist Dave LeGarde is the Duluth Central basketball coach and a sports aficionado. Contact him at dlegarde@charter.net .

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