One of the things that makes college hockey so special is the intense rivalries between teams. It's something professional sports just can't match. I once went to a regular season game between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalance at the height of their so-called rivalry. It was a struggle for me to stay awake through the whole game, and judging by the effort from some of the players, they were struggling as well. That's why nothing can compare to the passion, intensity, and electric atmosphere when two archrivals meet in college hockey.
There are a number are a number of outstanding rivalries in college hockey, and one question that seems to get tossed around every year is which rivalry is the best. Well I'm here to make my case for the one I think deserves that prestigious title.
So which is it? Minnesota and Wisconsin? Close, but ultimately, to the outsider it's just two behemoth land-grant colleges that are too close to being identical to make really good drama. Michigan and Michigan State? Here's a helpful tip. If you ever hear a fan from either school bragging about his team's dominance over the other in hockey, you can almost guarantee that his team lost the most recent football match-up between the two. Denver and Colorado College? A little too rich and preppy for my tastes. Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan? A little too nerdy. Minnesota and North Dakota? Sorry Minnesota, you only get one rival.
How about out East? Boston University and Boston College? Sorry, but Boston is a pro sports city. Having lived out east briefly, college sports just aren't as big a deal. Harvard and Cornell? Harvard isn't even the biggest college hockey draw in the Boston area. St. Lawrence and Clarkson? They do have sort of a Duke-UNC thing going on being so close together, but with all apologies to the Clarkson Fan Blog I say "Who"?
Nope. To find college hockey's best rivarly, you have to go way out west. There's no better rivalry in college hockey than the annual tilts between Alaska-Anchorage and the University of Alaska.
On the surface it may not look like much. Anchorage hasn't posted a winning season since joining the WCHA in 1993-1994, and their northern counterparts have never made an NCAA tournament appearance.
The trophy they play for, the Alaska Airlines Governor's Cup, isn't much either. By rule, any trophy loses major points for corporate sponsorship, though Alaska Airline's sponsorship makes a bit of sense since there are no outgoing roads in the state capital of Juneau for the governor to use. It isn't that aesthetically pleasing of a trophy either. There's a small cup placed atop two tiers of wood and gold plating. It looks like more like something you get for winning your bowling league than a hockey trophy.
But this rivalry isn't about national titles or bowling trophies. It's about two schools and two cities that are 360 miles apart in location, and a world apart in terms of culture.
You see, there's really two Alaskas. There's Anchorage, and then there's the rest of the state. In a state with roughly 627,000 people, just over 40% of them live in Anchorage. The rest live in small towns spread around the state, with only two cities going over 30,000, and the rest under 10,000 in population. Fairbanks is the biggest of the little guys, and most able to take on the Goliath to the south.
The differences between the two cities are pretty stark. The average high/low January temperature in Anchorage is a balmy 22/9 degrees. Cold for some, but actually warmer than many colder climates in the lower 48 states. The temperature in Fairbanks is what most people consider more "traditionally Alaskan". The average high temperature in January is a bitter cold -2 degrees, while the average low is -19 degrees.
Anchorage has a lovely Center for the Performing Arts for operas and Broadway musicals. Fairbanks does not. Anchorage has the huge Dimond Center Shopping Mall with a restaurant, and offices, and a bowling alley, and a hotel. Fairbanks does not. Almost of all of Anchorage has regular trash pick-up. Many Fairbanks residents have to take their garbage to "transfer stations" to be collected. Anchorage is one of the top metropolitan areas in terms of educational attainment. Some residents of Fairbanks still rely on subsistence hunting.
That's not to say that one city is better than the other. Anchorage residents view life in Fairbanks as cold, dull, and unsophisticated. Fairbanks residents view Anchorage as too cosmopolitan, and not really Alaskan. Each side sees the positive in their own way of life, and see the negative in the other. And for two weekends a year, that argument gets played out on a hockey rink.
It may not have the magnitude or importance or big market appeal of Minnesota-Wisconsin, or Michigan-Michigan State, or Boston U-Boston College, but at it's heart, Anchorage vs. Fairbanks has a conflict that no other rivalry can match.