Looking for a way to enrich your college hockey spectator experience? Try traveling a bit, and taking in a game in a new city, state or region. The more places you see, the better your appreciation for the game — and its fans — will be. More importantly, you’ll often feel more school pride cheering for your team on the road than you will at home — your team needs you more.
You’ll also enjoy comparing your own hometown arena experience to those of other teams, while discovering the tremendous diversity of travel experiences that awaits you.
With a bit of effort, you can become a true fan of the game, and not just your own team. The more you travel around the country, the more you’ll see our game in a national perspective, not just your own regional perspective. And chances are, you’ll expand your friendships around the country, too.
As someone who has traveled the length and breadth of our game over many years, I offer you my personal Top 10 List of favorite college hockey places. As you’ll see, I tend to enjoy places with their own distinctive personalities, both inside and outside the arena, with a bias toward places that truly embrace our game for all the special qualities it possesses. See how closely they match with your own list:
1. Grand Forks, North Dakota — Like seeing a baseball game in Yankee Stadium, this is the Mecca of all college hockey road trips. Everyone needs to make this trip at least one in their life, hopefully in the dead of deep winter. Yes, you will freeze your butt off in this frozen, flat and often treeless place, but no other community in this country cares more passionately about our game. This is a place where it’s perfectly normal to have your breakfast waitress sharing her opinion on the Fighting Sioux forechecking strategy. Little else matters here. The game is center stage, and the Ralph Englestad Arena is a $100 million brick, marble and glass hockey palace on the prairie. Generally, fans here are the most knowledgeable ones you will meet anywhere, which you will find out after you share a fermented malt beverage with them after the game. After you get back, you will feel secure knowing that you have seen our game in its proper place, and that you are enriched for the experience.
2. Boston, Massachusetts — No place offers more college hockey in one place. You can catch BU, BC, Harvard and Northeastern on the same subway/streetcar system (The “T”), and several more schools close by if you have a car. The Beanpot tournament is the nucleus of this complex hockey ecosystem, and while that tourney is a must-see in your hockey life, don’t miss games at the individual arenas. Each one has a different personality. You will see a big-time sports machine at work at BC, where quality hockey feels like an every-year birthright. And at BU, the pride of very passionate (and sometimes furry) fans make this program special — don’t miss T’s pub and the Dugout to meet them over beers! I’ve also always enjoyed the Ivy experience at Harvard, where just being on such a historic campus makes you feel smarter; and be sure to see the team pictures, dating back 100 years or more, along the wall at Bright Hockey Center. Perhaps most special of all is the oldest surviving hockey arena in the country — Matthews Arena at Northeastern. Built in 1909, I feel the ghosts every time I go. Sit in the balcony, watch the NU Dog House fan section do their thing, and enjoy the atmosphere. While some Eastern fans take Boston for granted, Western fans tend to enjoy gorging on all the college hockey action, all so close together. While Boston is a terrific big city with all the amenities, it feels small (it’s fewer square miles than the Denver airport) and having all those colleges around gives it a youthful feel. Just don’t drive! Bring your walking shoes.
3. Ann Arbor, Michigan — This is a rare place, where college hockey’s most nationally decorated (nine NCAA titles) program, a loud, historic arena, 7,000 passionate fans, great collegiate traditions and a wonderful band come together to create the most dynamic collegiate arena game experience in the nation. It’s a unique alchemy that cross-pollinates the Big 10 spirit and resources with East Coast hockey intimacy and Ivy League style. While the Cornell fans taught Michigan fans much of what they know during an early ’90s NCAA playoff appearance, the Maize and Blue fans have since taken it to the next level. Ann Arbor is also a great college town, with much to see and do culturally. Just go.
4. The North Country — Making the trip to Clarkson and St. Lawrence is a classic trip into the deep dark woods of northern New York State. The “twin hamlets” of Canton (SLU) and Potsdam (Clarkson) are tiny towns that love hockey, and you will feel very cozy watching these teams play in intimate arenas where the game really matters to people — especially if one or both teams are in the ECAC title hunt. Clarkson’s Cheel Arena is the newer of the two, with a vintage bell and train whistle that sound after goals, while SLU’s Appleton Arena has a certain rustic elegance and simplicity. Seeing schools this small competing at the highest levels reminds us of just how great our sport can be.
5. Madison, Wisconsin — Now that the Wisconsin Badgers seem to be returning to prominence, this is a place where college hockey feels “big time.” 15,000-plus fans in the Kohl Center are a big part of that, and the Big 10 atmosphere is a lot of fun. Don’t miss the Wisconsin band cutting loose between periods. And even if you do get stuck in one of the not-so-great seats in the rafters, there’s always State Street afterwards. Get a bratwurst and some cheese curds (much better than they sound) and feel the love from the Cheeseheads all around you. When you say Wisconsin, you’ve said it all.
6. Ithaca, New York — We all owe a debt to Cornell fans, for they invented the concept of true audience participation in college hockey and taught it to the rest of us. The students sleep out in large numbers for coveted tickets each year, and if you can score a ticket, you’ll feel lucky to be there. Lynah Rink is no-frills, but that’s exactly why games here are so terrific. You can feel the passion there, because everyone is into the game. Ithaca can be very cold, and not all that easy to get to, but Cornell is an Ivy League school with a picturesque campus and many non-hockey things to see and do once you get there.
7. Minneapolis, Minnesota — Going to a Gopher game feels slightly corporate these days, but underneath it, you can sense the intensely proud history, and the crowds let you know that hockey really matters here. The Minnesota Rouser, the skating cheerleaders, the Mariucci Arena murals, Goldy Gopher — it all works. Go to Stub and Herb’s, a sports tavern near the arena, before or after the game and revel in the history — Mariucci, Mayasich, Nanne, Sonmor, Larson, Brooks, the Brotens, Woog, Lucia, Vanek. You get the idea.
8. Orono, Maine — This is the Grand Forks of the East. A long car ride from Boston (after which you may wish you never see another evergreen tree), Orono is isolated and cold, but is another place where hockey really rules. The Alfond Arena is loaded with fans in every nook and cranny, and you’ll feel the passion of what the late Shawn Walsh built here, even though the program really is not that old. Have some terrific greasy pizza at Pat’s and you will make friends here. This is the only arena I’ve ever been to where out-of-towners are often welcomed into the booster club room.
9. Denver/Colorado Springs, Colorado — Just an hour apart on I-25, the University of Denver and Colorado College are the only private schools in the WCHA, and they have been beating on each other for more than 50 years. Denver has a spiffy new $75 million Magness Arena with its 215-foot golden bell tower, impressive concourse food (don’t miss the chef-carved roast beef sandwiches), and surprisingly nice libations on sale (if you are over 21). In Colorado Springs, while the CC games are fun at the World Arena, don’t miss the Golden Bee pub at the Broadmoor Hotel — a sing-along establishment where all those yards of ale help the fight songs sound better. It is rumored that Vic Heyliger, the legendary Michigan and Air Force coach, has his own pewter mug hanging here. And don’t forget the Air Force Academy, which is a big tourist attraction in its own right, with a hockey team to boot. Everybody enjoys coming to Colorado — with world class skiing by day, and great hockey at night. If you don’t have a good time on this trip, it’s your own fault.
10. Burlington, Vermont — Burlington is an interesting little city just a few cow pastures south of Montreal. The Gutterson Fieldhouse is soon to be replaced by a more modern arena as the UVM program gets ready for Hockey East. But in the mean time, the big old Quonset hut is loud, and full of 4,000 passionate fans at every game now that coach Kevin Sneddon is guiding the Catamount program. There are also over 50 taverns in Burlington for pre- and post-game fun, and there’s bound to be one that’s just right for you.
Tom Douglis is the former editor of College Hockey Magazine and former PR coordinator at USA Hockey.