Ignored by hometown team, Wisconsin’s Grant Besse finds his game against Minnesota

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Grant Besse has a ready-made answer when his friends badger him about playing for Wisconsin instead of his hometown Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team.

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “I just tell them they didn’t want me, or didn’t recruit me very hard. I can’t do anything about that.”

Actually, Besse has done quite a bit to remind Minnesota fans about The One That Got Away.

The junior forward from the Minneapolis suburb Plymouth has scored goals in five consecutive games against Minnesota, tallying six goals and eight assists. Included in the mix are two shootout goals, including a game-winner. On Wednesday, he was named a Hobey Baker candidate.

He’s one of six Minnesotans on the Badgers’ roster, while Minnesota has one Wisconsin player — River Falls freshman Tommy Novak, a third-round pick of the Nashville Predators — on its roster.

None have had the success against its border rival like Besse, however.

The 2013 Mr. Minnesota Hockey and fifth-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks will look to add to his Gopher-haunting totals this weekend when Wisconsin hosts Minnesota in another chapter of the Border Battle, easily one of the best rivalries in college hockey.

Saturday’s series finale will be televised on ASN. Tonight’s ASN college hockey night in America telecast features Vermont at Connecticut in a Hockey East showdown.

There was a time, Besse said, when he dreamed of wearing Minnesota colors and playing in front of his hometown crowd, but Wisconsin grabbed his attention when he traveled to watch a game there as a high school freshman and his allegiance started to change.

“The first game I saw was against Minnesota and it was a soldout crowd and an unbelievable experience. That’s where the thought of playing here originated,” Besse said. “I came to the conclusion during my junior year of high school this was where I wanted to come. I had talked to Minnesota, but nothing ever got too serious. Just some phone conversations.”

The Gophers’ perceived lack of recruiting interest admittedly left Besse with a chip on his shoulder. Last season, he had the ultimate payback when he scored the game-winning goal in a shootout victory.

His success against Minnesota was a highlight in a frustrating season that saw the Badgers finish 4-26-5. Five of his team-high 11 goals last season came against the Gophers.

It’s not just another game this weekend: It’s the Gophers-Badgers and the chance to play against the team he grew up rooting for.

“This is the game we all look forward to,” Besse said. “It’s always circled on the calendar because we understand the history of the rivalry and want to play in it. And it’s always fun to play against your hometown team.’’

The Badgers are a team still searching to turn the corner. Their signature win was a 3-1 victory in early in November against former WCHA rival North Dakota, then the No. 1-ranked team in the country. However, in the past two weeks they’ve been swept by both Penn State and Ohio State.

Still, Besse sees marked improvement as Wisconsin has already matched its win total from last season. Though the home games now fill a little over half of their more than 15,000-seat stadium, the crowds growing of late and a huge turnout this weekend is expected to welcome Minnesota.

“We’re a lot better team than we were last year,” Besse said. “I just saw a stat where we’ve led or tied in 16 of 20 games. We’ve just got to finish. The more we win the bigger the home crowds get.”

Minnesota is 11-10-0 overall and tied with Michigan with 18 Big Ten points (6-2-0-0). It can ill-afford a loss at against Wisconsin (4-10-6, 1-5-2-1 for 6 league points) because it is currently on the PairWise bubble, tied with Minnesota-Duluth for the 16th place.

The Gophers enter the series riding their first three-game win streak of the season after a 7-1 rout of rising Big Ten power Penn State and a sweep of Michigan State last weekend.

Above: Wisconsin’s Grant Besse, who wasn’t recruited strongly by his hometown team Minnesota, seems to play at a higher level when his Badgers face the Gophers. (Courtesy Greg Anderson)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu