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Gopher Hockey Notebook: Minnesota unveils 2016 Mariucci Classic opponents; other schedule notes

Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

Minnesota announced Alabama-Huntsville, Massachusetts and Mercyhurst will participate the 26th annual Mariucci Classic alongside the Gophers.

Times and opponents for the December 30-31 tournament at Mariucci Arena will be determined at a later date.

All three teams are familiar, having visited Mariucci Arena since 2010. Alabama-Huntsville participated in the 2012 Mariucci Classic although did not play the Gophers. Mercyhurst opened the 2013-14 season against Minnesota, losing 6-0 in the Ice Breaker tournament. UMass, participating in its third Mariucci Classic, last played the Gophers in October 2010.

Of the opponents, only Mercyhurst (17-15-4) finished above .500 en route to a fourth place finish in Atlantic Hockey. Both UMass and UAH finished last in Hockey East and WCHA, respectively. Add in a lack of a big name like a Boston College or Harvard or Ferris State (when the Bulldogs and Gophers were #1 and #2 in the country) and simply this Mariucci Classic is an opportunity for Minnesota to get back its trophy that keeps slipping away.

Since 2009-10 Minnesota has only won one Mariucci Classic. This comes after a stretch where the team won its own tournament 8 of 9 years. Last year's winner, Harvard, scored in the final minute to tie the game and then went on to defeat the Gophers in overtime. It's a loss which in hindsight cost Minnesota an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.

Other Men's Hockey Schedule Notes

-While the Gophers and Big Ten haven't officially announced its schedule yet, Minnesota will open the 2016-17 regular season in Anchorage, Alaska against the two teams based in the 49th State. Minnesota plays old WCHA conference foe Alaska-Anchorage on Friday October 7th. Two days later the Gophers play the Nanooks as part of the Kendall Hockey Classic.

Two reasons for this to happen:

1) The Gophers have Alaska connections. Head coach Don Lucia began his coaching career in Fairbanks as an assistant for Alaska (1981-85) and Anchorage (1985-87) before getting his first head coach job with the Nanooks. Goaltender Eric Schierhorn is a native of Anchorage.

2) Selfishly, the Gophers get two extra games by heading to Alaska due to an NCAA exemption. Two extra games means two extra home dates and two extra gates at a 10,000 seat arena.

Continuing having more than the 34 regular season games has been important for Minnesota since college hockey realignment in 2013 took away the nearly annual Alaska trip against the Seawolves (and awesome local commercials). That's why the team has played in exempt Ice Breaker tournaments in 2013 and 2014 and hosted the similarly exempt Hall of Fame in 2015 versus Vermont.

-This streak continues in the future. Minnesota will return to the Ice Breaker in 2017, hosted by Duluth. (Michigan Tech and Union also are scheduled to participate.) The Gophers reportedly will head to Las Vegas and participate in the 2018 Hall of Fame Game against North Dakota.

-The Big Ten conference schedule is slated to be similar to the first three years where 20 games begin after Thanksgiving and are split across the second half of the year. Minnesota plays two-game series at home and away against the other five teams in a full round-robin.

-The 2017 North Star College Cup, for now, is moving back to a Friday-Saturday format. Minnesota plays the Bulldogs in the first round Friday January 27 at Xcel Energy Center. The other semifinal features a rematch of the 2016 final between St. Cloud State and Bemidji State with the respective winners and losers playing one another.

Changing back from the 2016 NSCC Saturday-Sunday format makes some sense after the hypothesis that more outstate fans would travel over the weekend did not fully come to fruition.  Every coach and player involved agrees it is important to continue the tournament to keep in-state rivalries alive. Getting the right mix of time and place, along with building tradition, has yet to happen after a successful first year .

-Minnesota State sits out this year's North Star College Cup but will play the Gophers in a home-and-home series. Friday November 18th will be at Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato while the next night's action moves up US 169 to Mariucci Arena.

Minnesota split a series last year with the Mavericks, with each team winning on the road. (Minnesota State's victory being a 3-2 comeback win where the Gophers blew a 2-0 lead with less than five minutes remaining.) The Mavericks also defeated Minnesota in St. Paul as part of the North Star College Cup.

-The Gophers should also be playing St. Cloud State in a home-and-home series during the opening month of the season.

-Surprisingly, Minnesota does not play Bemidji State. The Beavers released its schedule earlier today.

-Other scheduled non-conference opponents: A weekend trip to the North Country playing Clarkson and St. Lawrence (10/28-29), as part of a travel package with Wisconsin; a weekend trip back up to Boston against Boston College and Northeastern to complete the four year agreement with the two schools which began in 2013-14. BC came to Mariucci in 2013. Northeastern appeared last year.  Minnesota played the two schools (defeating BC but losing to Northeastern) in 2014.

-Last, but certainly not least, old foe and longtime hated rival North Dakota returns to Mariucci in November. That the two would resume its lovely Hatfield vs McCoy college hockey rivalry this season has been known for 3 years, but Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald reported earlier this month the Gophers will host the defending national champion the first weekend of November.

Minnesota and North Dakota have not played one another since meeting in the 2014 Frozen Four. The last scheduled game between the two was in January 2013 when both teams were members of the WCHA. The Gophers will reciprocate by heading to Grand Forks in 2017 to face the Fighting Hawks.

Ones For The Road

In case you missed it: Casey Mittelstadt is not accelerating this year and will play high school and USHL. (Jason Gonzalez of the Minneapolis Star Tribune spoke with Mittelstadt about his decision, if you're interested in reading.)....98-born goalie Ryan Edquist flipped his commitment to Boston College...2000-born forward Colin Schmidt verbally committed to Minnesota...Alums Hudson Fasching, Brady Skjei, and Jordan Schroeder are playing for Team USA at the World Championships...Forward Rem Pitlick (Plymouth, MN/Muskegon) was named the USHL Forward of the Year and Player of the Year after leading the league in scoring with 46 goals....Pitlick was also named to the USHL's first team.

-Gopher D commit Ryan Zuhlsdorf (Edina, MN/Dubuque) is the lone commit still playing. Zuhlsdorf, a fifth round 2015 NHL Draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was traded from Sioux City to Dubuque mid-season. The Fighting Saints are currently down 2-0 against Tri-City in the best-of-5 Clark Cup Final. Game 3 is tomorrow (Friday May 20).

-Gopher verbal commit William Fallstrom's (Stockholm, Sweden) USHL rights were traded from Omaha to Bloomington. The forward had 13 points in 44 games in his first season in North America.

-Gopher D commit Ryan Lindgren (Minneapolis/USNTDP) was invited to the NHL Draft Combine. Along with Mittelstadt, Lindgren was a part of Team USA's bronze medal finish at the U-18 World Championships up in Grand Forks. He is ranked 47th in North America by Central Scouting. (Pitlick, in his second year of draft eligibility, is ranked 93rd and verbal commit Sam Rossini is ranked 175th.)

-Congrats to all the current and former players who recently graduated!

In addition, Gopher alum Keith Ballard completed his degree. WCCO had a cool story on it.

That's all for now.  A lot of you have asked about different players coming in for 2016-17 since Minnesota has yet to release its roster and has several early departures in addition to Mike Szmatula being eligible after sitting out the year as a transfer. I'll try to get to those as a separate notebook, but there will be a surprise or two.

If you reached the end, pat yourself on the back. Thanks for reading!

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --