When the Wildcats take the ice against the University of Nebraska-Omaha this weekend, a lot more will be on the line than appears. Yes, the 'Cats are looking to bounce back after being swept by #3 Wisconsin last week. Yes, they also need to be part of a conference-wide movement to win non-conference games to give the new-look WCHA a better chance to send multiple teams to the NCAA tournament. But more importantly, the Northern faithful will try to defend a megaphone against the invading Red Army.
UNO's and NMU's fan groups share the Spiritphone Trophy, a giant plastic megaphone decorated in Maverick and Wildcat colors. According to rules established in 2008 on a gentleman's agreement between coaches, the trophy goes to the overall winner of the games played during the season. In case of a tie, the team currently in control of the Spiritphone keeps it.
The two fan groups first became friendly at the CCHA championships in 2002. After being eliminated by Notre Dame, a number of Maverick fans still made the trip and was welcomed to join the Puckheads to cheer on NMU. The united fan base cheered on the 'Cats to a victory over the Fighting Irish in the tourney's quarterfinals. The win was a major game in Wildcat hockey history as it was the last win for former Head Coach Rick Comley before he left to take over Michigan State's program.
“We had a lot of fun with the Puckheads and I took the megaphone back with me. It was a purposeful decision to take the megaphone since it made a pretty cool souvenir,” Coppard said. “(The fans) hit it off pretty well and I thought (Puckhead founder Darren “Mojo” Muljo) could take a joke pretty well.”
Claiming that he's loud enough to not need the megaphone, Coppard adorned the spiritphone with UNO stickers and colors and sent it back to Muljo. The move sparked a prank war of fake megaphones, stolen mascots and curses between the two groups for the next four years. The superstitions involved created a folklore background for the rivalry, where both sides can reminiscence about legends and spin tales of forgotten relics.
While the rivalry is mostly celebrated in the stands, there is significant history on the ice. Nebraska Omaha's first conference points in school history and conference tournament series win were against the 'Cats in 1999 and 2000. A 2002 game had 27 combined penalties, including one that negated a goal for the 'Cats after officials ruled the stick head was too curved after scoring on a penalty shot. The all-time series is tied at 16-16-2 and is 4-4 in the last eight games. The teams split this series last year in Omaha: 5-2 Mavericks the first night and 2-1 Wildcats in the second game.
However, both fan groups claim the biggest moment in the rivalry was “Fishgate.” UNO fans throw a fish onto their home ice after scoring their first goal, since the opposing goaltender would have to “fish out” the puck from the back of the net. On November 15, 2003, NMU's Pat Bateman broke the unwritten rule of beating the fish with his stick and attacking it with his skates. The Mavericks were quick to respond and a multiplayer fight erupted near the Wildcats' bench. Now both groups will try to throw a fish on the ice after their team scores a goal during the series.
The rivalry though has not been as big for current NMU students, according to John Kendall, the current captain of the Puckheads. UNO left the CCHA before the 2010-2011 season and are still non-conference opponents as members of the NCHC. The fan rivalry is in its 12th season and the NMU fanbase has shrank. According to NMU athletics archives, in the 2004-2005 season, NMU averaged 3,320 people per game declining to 2,541 in 2010-2011 season. Last season's attendance was 2,845 per game.
The decrease has been rough for the fanfare of the Puckheads as well. Just a few years ago, the NMU bookstore sold plastic hard hats with pucks already attached for people to buy. Now, the North Wind, NMU's student newspaper, published a picture of the group not as the Puckheads, but as “hard headed fans” in safety vests.
“This is a fantastic rivalry that must continue not only for the history between the schools but for the Puckheads,” Kendall said. “Series against UNO are always exciting for (the Puckheads) and we hope they are just as exciting for students that don't know the history between the two schools.”
According to Coppard, the rivalry is not something the Red Army wants to give up on either. The Maverick hockey program was created in 1997 and the fan rivalry was one of the first and only opportunities for the fans to rally together with a school with similar size and personality to share a passionate yet friendly rivalry.
“There was an idea of getting student groups, but you can't do student to student competition with bigger student populations. Some groups tend to take things too seriously,” Coppard said. “I think (a new rivalry) could happen, but don't know how it will.”
Kendall said that people willing “to scream their lungs out cheering on the 'Cats” are welcome to join the group by contacting him at any hockey game. That open attitude to grow the Puckheads would bring new blood to the fan base and the rivalry.
“The students will and always have an impact on any series,” Kendall said. “Our goal as Puckheads is to get the students and the rest of the crowd involved with the game. That's all the Puckheads are: a bunch of students that not only love hockey but are also full of school spirit.”
The devotion to the sport is also shared by the Maverick faithful. Coppard explained that more stories and inside jokes shared between the fan groups is best shared in person at the combined tailgates before the games or parties after.
“Hockey is a niche sport, but with a very passionate group of fans,” Coppard said. “Sharing these stories is part of the fun.”
The presentation for the megaphone will be made at the conclusion of Saturday's game.
Brice Burge is the managing editor of MQTSocialScene.com. He can be reached at BriceMQT@gmail.com.