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Commentary: The highlights and rankings from a trip to some of the Midwest’s arenas

2013113019 12 0631 Commentary: The highlights and rankings from a trip to some of the Midwests arenas

Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena is a special place in college hockey, writer Joe Connor says (photo: Jim Rosvold).

After road tripping last season to 13 venues in the Northeast in my quest to catch a game at every NCAA Division I men’s hockey school by the time I’m 50, I recently returned from another fun, multi-state journey through the heartland of America.

Earlier this season I visited nine different schools, including eight for the first time. And like a year ago, I wasn’t great karma for the home teams. Last season, only seven of the 13 hosts won their games I witnessed. This time the hosts went 5-3-1. And like a year ago, the U.S. Junior National Team was unwelcome guests during my visit. A year ago, Merrimack was the victim. This year it was Minnesota State that lost.

In addition to the college pucks, I also soaked in a few high school games in Minnesota and caught a game up in Winnipeg, the only NHL arena I’d yet to see. Furthermore, I had a great time checking out the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn., plus historic, old throwback rinks in the Iron Range and awesome “Little Ralph” Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls. And my excuse meter remained in perfect form on the highways and byways — three warning tickets for speeding in three different states! Thank you officers in Ohio, Indiana and Minnesota for your kindness!

Like my trip a year ago to the Northeast, here’s a recap, with a handful of “awards,” followed by my top three from this most recent delirious journey:

Best Student Section Award

And it’s by a landslide: To the deranged students at Ferris State’s Ewigleben Ice Arena in Big Rapids, Mich., who made life miserable for Bemidji State netminder Andrew Walsh during my visit. We can blame a tradition in the 600-strong, sold-out-for-the second-year-in-a-row “Dawg Pound” for some of the antics that include in-game signs that are constantly changed along with ridiculous chanting. Students pay some $85 for season tickets.

ThomasSzidikFerrisState Commentary: The highlights and rankings from a trip to some of the Midwests arenas

Thomas Szidik leads Ferris State’s student section (photo: Joe Connor).

Thomas Szidik will hand down this tradition after this season to junior Joel Root but not before testing the boundaries of decency and annoying the Dean Wormers in the Ferris administration. Szidik out-freak-showed 20 other students to earn this leadership role.

“Helen Keller has better vision than you” is a PG version example, for this is a wholesome family column.

“I used to be a resident assistant,” Szidik explains to me. I didn’t follow up to ask if this was a career move up or if he’d been fired as an RA, seeing that “How many Beavers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None. Bemidji looks better in the dark” probably wasn’t in the RA handbook.

“I’m always pushing it. I’ve had this list [of signs and chants] in my phone since high school,” Szidik explains. “Actually, I have two cell phones. See here, this is a different list.”

The other lunatic in the Pound isn’t a dog, it’s a monkey. “The Monkey Man,” Matt Leindecker, comes to each game in a horrifyingly ugly and disgustingly smelly monkey outfit and mask wearing hockey gloves and a double zero on his back (and on this night, “I Love Beavers,” on his big bleeping fanny). He also bounced around like a monkey and nearly clobbered me twice. When the Bulldogs scored, he literally slid down the steps of the student section.

Not only was the Bulldogs student section a top-notch freak show, it also was the background for what happened to be the best game on my trip. Ferris State beat Bemidji State 5-4 on a blast by Jason Binkley 1:28 into overtime.

The Colorful, Cracker Box Award: Midwest Edition

To the BGSU Ice Arena, Bowling Green, Ohio. It isn’t Cornell Cracker Box, but for these parts, it’s pretty darn close.

I saw the Falcons lose a 3-2 overtime thriller to Minnesota State, which was the second-best game on the journey.

The feel of this place really hasn’t changed much since Ken Morrow played here before helping lead the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal. It wasn’t a sellout during my BGSU visit, with noticeable pockets of empty seats in one corner of the arena, but the rest of the place was crammed with 2,300 of your closest friends in orange and brown. The student section, perched along the glass and upward, wasn’t nearly as loud as at Ferris State, but rather a few old timers kept the place lively, particularly near center ice as they barked at the zebras on more than one occasion!

Best Band Award (but Neil Young, where are the fans?)

To Alabama-Huntsville. I saw the Chargers twice on my trip, once at home and once on the road, and of course, they lost both times. I’m not certain this is going to work long-term for UAH, but they do have one hell of a band — at least for home games!

The phrase, “Hockey Capital of the South” — consistently illuminated on the scoreboard at each end of the Von Braun Center — is a bit of a stretch, wouldn’t you say, when you play on a Saturday night at a less-than-half-full arena? Well, wouldn’t you know it, the Alabama football team was also playing a televised regular season game at the very same time on the road — 187 miles away! You know, priorities! Roll Tide.

UAHBand Commentary: The highlights and rankings from a trip to some of the Midwests arenas

Alabama-Huntsville may not have many wins this season, but its band puts on quite a show (photo: Joe Connor).

The Chargers somehow managed to stay with then-No. 3 St. Cloud State before falling 4-3. But the band remained chipper as ever, especially when playing “Sweet Home Alabama” with its alternate lyrics like my favorite:

“Well, I heard ole Neil put her down … because she was heavy!”

The Comatose Award

To Ohio State, which plays its games in the antiseptic and charmless Value City Arena. It’s a concrete jungle. I’ve caught a Buckeyes men’s basketball game here when this place is nearly full and it still doesn’t impress, so imagine what it’s like for hockey. Not good, especially when the place is less than 50 percent full — in the lower bowl. The Buckeyes draw so poorly for hockey they just close the upper bowl right off.

Granted, I caught a Tuesday night nonconference game in late October against Bowling Green, but the Buckeyes certainly reap no home-ice advantage playing here.

The I’m Freezing My Fanny Off Award (And Perhaps That’s Why I Forgot My Hat)

To Bemidji State. When I arrived in Bemidji, Minn., on Dec. 13 before the Beavers’ game against Alaska, it was overcast — and the temperature was a balmy minus 9. That’s not including the wind chill, folks.

The cold apparently got to my brain and not in a good way, because, after parking at the shiny Sanford Center on the shores of the frozen lakefront, I forgot my hat in the car — big, big mistake. By the time I got inside, I couldn’t feel my extremities, let alone my ears.

“Do you know it’s colder here today than it is Fairbanks?” quipped a smiling fan, apparently relishing enjoyment in my misery in a failed attempt to offer comfort.

Before my brain had to time to respond, he had chuckled and wandered away. Strangely, when I came to, all I could think about (except whether my ears would ever move again), was the pack of gum I received earlier in the day from the local chamber with the chewy marketing slogan of “experience the refreshment of Bemidji.”

There really isn’t a bad seat in the house at Sanford Center, yet I don’t know if it was the cold, the holidays or because the Beavers trailed three separate times in the game, but the fan atmosphere was quite, well, lame. Maybe it was because they skated to a tie, the dumbest invention in the sports world — “Hey fans, it’s a tie! Well, thanks for coming! See you next time!” You say tie. I say boo.

The Pilgrimage to The Iron Range Was Well Worth It Award

If you’re a puck head fan like me, it’s worth your while to make a visit one of these days to Minnesota’s Iron Range region if you haven’t already.

The area in Northeast Minnesota gets its name as a result of the iron ore in the area. From Grand Rapids and Coleraine in the south to Hibbing, Eveleth and Virginia in the north, this place has old-school arenas used by high schools today that haven’t changed much in decades, with my favorite being Hibbing Memorial Arena. It opened in the 1930s and once hosted the Chicago Blackhawks for training camp. It still has a classic, old-school feel.

The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth is a shrine to the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team, with unique memorabilia from elsewhere, too, like when the University of Illinois had a Division I men’s hockey program. Thanks to former NHLer and ex-Colorado College star Doug Palazzari for the tour and the insider scoop on the Iron Range happenings. Palazzari, an Eveleth native, is the hall’s Executive Director, and his dad, Aldo, also a NHL alum, played hockey for Illinois. But I got a kick out of learning that former New England Whalers forward Mike Antonovich is the mayor of Coleraine. What in the Brass Bonanza is this world coming to?

At “Sue’s Penalty Box” in downtown Eveleth, the Minnesota-Duluth jersey from native Mark Pavelich hangs above the bar and a mural to the ’80 team adorns one of its walls. Pavelich played on the “Iron Range Line” on the ’80 club that also included two others from this region, Babbitt’s Buzz Schneider and Virginia’s John Harrington. Bill Baker, assistant captain on the ’80 team, hails from Grand Rapids. Over at the Eveleth Hippodrome, there are more artifacts and memorabilia, including from late native son John Mariucci.

Kerry Bidle, athletic director at Virginia High School, played a key role in creating large video screens down both sides at the Miners Memorial Building that include photos and biography information of players when they score or assist on a goal. How many high schools do you know that do this? And remember the Hanson brothers from the movie, “Slap Shot”? They’re based on the Carlson brothers from Virginia, as Jeff, Steve and Jack played minor league hockey together in the 1970s. A tribute to the trio hangs in the arena lobby.

At last, my top three favorites from the trip:

2011100720 22 4243 Commentary: The highlights and rankings from a trip to some of the Midwests arenas

Minnesota-Duluth’s Amsoil Arena is in its third season (photo: Jim Rosvold).

3. Amsoil Arena, Minnesota-Duluth

This is a real gem in downtown Duluth along the waterfront. Designed much like Notre Dame’s current digs, it has a second deck that hovers over the ice. The Bulldogs came out flying on a Saturday night as they netted three goals in less than four minutes of the first period to topple the then-No. 2 ranked Irish 4-1. And I got a personal tour of the digs most fans don’t see. Outside of North Dakota, no players may have it as good as far as amenities in the locker room and whirlpool as the Bulldogs.

There’s more hockey history in town at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center, including a wall highlighting all the great players that were nurtured in the area’s youth programs and went on to collegiate careers. But the biggest highlight of the facility is the large, historic murals and displays along the concourse of the main arena, which tell the story of Duluth’s rich hockey history. The center, which opened in 2008, has an old-time feel and today is home to high school games. It’s open year-round for a visit.

Irish take first skate at Compton Family Ice Arena MC Commentary: The highlights and rankings from a trip to some of the Midwests arenas

Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena has its own character despite being less than three years old (photo: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame).

2. Compton Family Ice Arena, Notre Dame

In the interests of full disclosure, I was raised Irish Catholic and am a Notre Dame fan. So there you go — the bias meter has been revealed! Unfortunately, I wasn’t even remotely smart enough to even dream of actually attending Notre Dame, but, hey, look at me now, mom!

All journalistic objectivity returning now, the Irish did a heck of a job building this new arena. Facts to support the claim? Well, there are no lousy seats, with the second deck hovering over the ice below. What’s more, all home rinks should have their own unique character and color. At Notre Dame, it’s “God, Country, Notre Dame” painted high above the west end of the arena, and “Onward to Victory” emblazoned on its south side.

Onward to Victory, indeed, as I saw the Irish pummel Alabama-Huntsville 5-2 before about 4,700 fans. It was Thanksgiving weekend and most of the students were visiting their families, but I was still impressed with the fans and especially the arena, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful campus than Notre Dame.

UMN UND 35 Commentary: The highlights and rankings from a trip to some of the Midwests arenas

Mariucci Arena has hosted Minnesota hockey since 1993 (photo: Jim Rosvold).

1. Mariucci Arena, Minnesota

This was my second visit to the home of the Golden Gophers, and it won’t be my last because this is a special place. College hockey history reeks here, even before you get in the building. The arena’s brick facade, with “M” flags flying atop, heightens your excitement as you enter the lobby and climb up the steps to the rink. Above, gigantic banners of great players past create an imposing presence.

I caught an early season Sunday afternoon tilt here between two college hockey powers, as Boston College was in town. No. 1 Minnesota wasted little time in showing no mercy to the then-No. 5 Eagles. The Golden Gophers scored four times in about an eight minute time frame of the first period en route to a 6-1 thrashing of BC.

Please, no boring conclusion

Having now caught a game at more than 40 of the 59 NCAA Division I men’s hockey venues over a seven-year period, I think I have a pretty good base of comparison and knowledge level to say the state of the game has never looked better.

Next season, Rochester Institute of Technology opens a new arena. By 2016, Nebraska-Omaha is scheduled to christen an on-campus venue. And schools such as Colgate, Connecticut and Western Michigan may have new facilities in the future too, a testament to the game’s popularity and importance.

What this trip also revealed, however, was the widening gap across Division I men’s hockey and the multiple, genuine challenges that programs like Alabama-Huntsville and others face in the future just trying to keep up and recruit the best players to their schools.

Joe Connor is a freelance college hockey writer and author of the annually updated online travel companion, "A Fan's Guide to the Ultimate College Hockey Experience," which is available for purchase exclusively at his web site, www.mrsportstravel.com.


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  • jdhockeyboyz

    The last time I was at the US hockey hall of fame the displays looked a little dated, but it was still a fun visit for a true puckhead.

  • Dylan Johnson

    The Ralph Engelstad Arena?

    • UofMGoldenChokers

      This guy apparently doesnt know what a nice arena is…..

  • UofMGoldenChokers

    Mariucci is a pole barn. “Greatest sold out arena with the most empty seats……”

    • jdhockeyboyz

      I’m a decades long Gopher follower and couldn’t agree more. When the #1 team in the country faces off against UMD, or Wiskey, or BC and there are 2-3,000 no shows, something is seriously wrong.

      • UofMGoldenChokers

        It is pretty amazing that every seat is not filled for every single game.

  • Carl

    Mariucci is a joke. A half empty barn with everyone there sitting on their hands. He obviously did not go to very many midwest arenas

    • patrickolson

      It has really taken a step downhill because they keep reducing the size of the student section..PLUS student season tickets are still like $300. $85 for student tix? Man, sign me up.

      • bronxbomberz41

        UNH and Maine are free for all undergrads, first come first serve. I’ve never heard of not getting free tickets to sporting events at your school as as student.

        • patrickolson

          I don’t know any school in MN that gives free student tickets. And I’m not talking about just the UofM

          • Malone

            Wow, that is rough… had no idea. I’m in New England and have been to maybe a dozen or so DI schools for hockey/other sports events… never heard of students having to pay for tickets either.

          • Nick

            SCSU is free for all students. Just swipe your ID card at the door.

  • MWard

    Believe me when I say that I bleed maroon and gold. I love the Gophs hockey team, but Mariucci is a pretty sterile arena. The atmosphere just isn’t that great. I’ve been to a game in Grand Forks and that place is second to none when it comes to arenas. The facility is just spectacular. The game wasn’t all that great, so the atmosphere was a bit off, but no one can argue how awesome Englestad Arena is. Clearly this guy has not seen a game there. And this is coming from a Gopher fan.

  • Fred Davenport

    Thx Joe, for the rankings of the venues in the east and west, how about a ranking for the best in all of college hockey

  • DrunkTrainPolka

    “My father was a miner on the upper Malamute.
    My mother was a hostess in the house of ill repute.

    And at the tender age of three, they threw me on my ear,
    And there was nothing left for me to do but become an engineer.”

    The best band in -ALL- of college hockey is the Michigan Tech Pep Band… no question. No ifs, ands, or buts about it!

  • Chris Kuylen

    No props for the Ralph? I know you mentioned the locker rooms, but the atmosphere at North Dakota is something to behold!

    • Ryan Olien

      I agree, it is honestly a bit embarrassing that there was basically no mention. Commonly considered the “Taj Majal of College Hockey”, the students sometimes wait for 12-15 hours outside in subzero temperatures for games. I just really can’t believe he failed to even mention it.

  • BJ

    Haven’t been to Ferris so I can’t comment but have been to almost all the old wcha arenas minus Alaska Anch. And Ralph is pretty awesome and for student section I give it to Wisconsin, band is solid too. Not mention the old guy doing the cheer. When they get a packed house all doing sieve it’s impressive. Also props to Wisconsin for their fans they always run their mouths but have fun with it. Gopher games exact opposite always seem to run into that group of fans that make you shake your head.

    • UofMGoldenChokers

      Wisco fans are fun to hang out with. Always have had a great time in Madison. Goophs fans, on the other hand, reek of arrogance…….

      • patrickolson

        And how many Gopher fans are on here trashing other teams arenas and fans? Ummm none. Look at yourself first sir.

        • mahogma

          It’s because Joe Connor didn’t rave about one of the few things worth traveling to North Dakota to see. Kind of sad,actually.

          • UofMGoldenChokers

            Come on, Marihoochi the best in the midwest? Give me a break……we all know its the Ralph, no matter what team you go for.

          • Jake Snow

            Most would agree that the Ralph belongs in the top 3, if not at the top of the list. Most would also agree that every characteristic you accuse MN fans of having, you have in spades.

        • ted

          Great post, but save your energy, Patrickolson. He’s the biggest troll on this website. Look at his name. Pretty much says it all.

          • patrickolson

            touche

        • UofMGoldenChokers

          Cause they know their arena blows…..and you know that goophs fans think that their $hit doesnt stink. Been to plenty of final fives and had to sit around rodent fans that are so cocky and arrogant when their team is 4 goals down…..

          • patrickolson

            Ok troll.

          • UofMGoldenChokers

            This isnt a review of only one arena nor one team…..so this is trolling how? Idiot…..

          • patrickolson

            because the only comments you have had are negative about the Gophers…THAT is trolling, as your name suggests. And I can play this game just as long as you can.

          • UofMGoldenChokers

            I said Wisco fans were fun to party with…….as for my name….well, you can’t tell me it isnt true.

          • patrickolson

            It’s about as true as any other team. Only one team wins the championship each year.

          • UofMGoldenChokers

            I guess you can say everyone chokes except the eventual winner. But I do have to give as much $hit possible to my biggest rival.

          • patrickolson

            fair enough

  • ChuckGandCrew

    No love for the Fighting Sioux arena? The first thing I ever learned about college hockey was that there was an amazing arena in a state where 2% of the entire population shows up to every game. Where the Sioux is stitched on every seat, and there isn’t a bad view in the house.

    • reardensteel

      Sadly, I think they had to cover/remove all the Sioux decor.

      • patrickolson

        they did.

        • UofMGoldenChokers

          No they didnt. The only thing removed was from the outside of the building that said “home of the fighting sioux.” Everything else is still the same.

          • reardensteel

            Well, that’s cool.
            I suppose the Sioux logos on the seats are covered by fan bums during the game, so the NCAA allowed it.
            Who knows; the whole thing was a boondoggle, anyway.

          • patrickolson

            You are correct.

          • UofMGoldenChokers

            The upkeep on that place will unbelievable. NC$$ said as normal wear and tear happens things will be replaced. I dont see that happening.

  • Mamba

    He got as close to Grand Forks as Bemidji & Thief River’s ‘Little Ralph’ & missed THE RALPH? Yikes! But he mentioned soaking in great atmosphere at North Dakota & a host of other schools in his earlier article so ya know he’s been there. So either Grand Forks is not in the Midwest ooooooorrrrrrrrr it’s simply not … in the author’s vernacular … a highlight.

  • Will Norcross

    You Guys have obviously never visited Lawson Ice Arena and sat through a game while the student section is going wild…….THE BEST student section in the country

    • Bob Klar

      Agreed. I’m a Ferris alum and fan and live a little south of Kalamazoo. In the CCHA days, I used to catch my dawgs play at Lawson. I like to think that Ferris bought out the best of the Lunitics.

  • mavsfan4real

    I hope uscho doesnt pay for reviews… If you go to games at each arena, give the good and bad of each? Complicated concept… SO much easier to just give props to the ski-u-blah. There is a more accurate title.

  • Bill Johnson

    If the guy visited the Ralph, then he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Not a single rationale person would argue that the Ralph is not the best college hockey facility and venue in the country and its not close. I love the gophers and hate the Sioux, but come on guy, you lose all credibility when you leave that out. if you visited the Ralph you’re clueless. And as for Notre Dame arena, I’ve been there and it is a nice facility, but it’s small with very little student and fan support.

  • Bill Johnson

    Ferris state with the best student section, they average. 2,000 total fans. As for Notre Dame arena, I agree that there aren’t many bad seats, but there are only 5,000 of them–there shouldn’t be any bad seats.

  • reardensteel

    There is something disappointingly predicable about rating Mariucci number 1.
    I was actually cringing as I was scrolling through the article, fearing I’d see what I saw.

    MN is a great hockey school. If you had to pick the top 5 schools in college hockey, based on history, tradition, all-time record, great players and coaches, and what have you… I’m sure most people would put MN somewhere in there.
    (Extremely important note: I am not starting a giant, pointless argument over that theoretical “5 Greatest”, so please, resist the urge.)

    However, that’s not what this article was supposed to be about.
    It’s about the experience at the arena. I haven’t been to Mariucci lately, but if there are lots of empty seats, that’s a huge strike against. I go to a couple CC games a year, and attendance is pathetic; it really hurts the atmosphere (probably doesn’t help I’m a Gopher fan).
    And Mariucci is neither a new, state-of-the-art facility nor is it old enough to earn it’s place in the pantheon of sacred venues (most of those are in the Eastern time zone).

    Furthermore, the writer didn’t even go to a game at the Ralph, which is a state-of-the-art building that was designed with nothing in mind except to glorify Sioux hockey and provide an unmatched viewing experience. It’s as if Englestad hired Howard Roark to design his arena. That deserves a visit, at the least.

    Anyway, my sympathies to all NoDak fans and fans of other schools whose home arenas are more fun than Mariucci.
    I’m not sure what the writer was thinking.

  • Bill Johnson

    Bottom line it was just a poorly drafted article. If he wants to go around and write about what he likes and does not like, that’s fine. But when you go around and proclaim yourself an expert (by bragging about how many rinks you’re been to), and then proclaim things are the best or the worst, it’s problematic. The example already used is that no one would argue that the Ralph is the finest facility in college hockey, not Mariucci. The Duluth arena is nicer and bigger than the Notre Dame facility. Best student sections? There are better student sections than others but some of it depends on the game you’re watching. Gopher fans have a great student section when you’re playing a rival (UND, Wisconsin, etc), but is sparse when playing other teams. I certainly wouldn’t buy the guys book based on what I have read of his because his drafting of this article was really off.

    • gogofs

      I have to strongly disagree. I have been a Gopher season ticket holder since my freshman year, and now 30 years later cannot be more disappointed with the lame student section. First, they do not even fill the section. Second, they have two cheers (one poorly timed most games-telling the opposing gk he sucks, when he is winning and playing out of his head…); they rarely get loud enough to be heard; and do not seem to understand the opponent or the history of any team, player, or coach.
      Without traveling too far you can go see UMD students who have researched players and taunt them personally; or go see Badger fans show you what a real cheer looks and sounds like.
      Come on students, put some effort into it!

  • RBTGT

    Having been to every arena in the WCHA (old & new), as well as all that were in the CCHA, a list that includes all the current NCHC teams, I feel more qualified to have written this article than this guy was.

    I’ll just leave it here. Anybody that has Mariucci as #1 on a list of this nature, and excludes Ralph Engelstad Arena altogether, lost every bit of credibility he had the second he hit wrote the first sentence of the article.

    And, FWIW, Mariucci would be well down on my list of all the arenas that I mentioned above.

    The Ralph is among the best facilities in hockey, period. Anywhere.

    Full disclosure: I am a UNO fan.

  • sandman7733

    Not a Sioux fan, but how he could leave out Engelstad is simply mind boggling. Either this guy is completely biased, crazy, or he just plain forgot (don’t know how that would even be possible), but there simply is no comparison. As far as Mariucci goes……it serves it’s purpose and is a decent enough facility, but it clearly is not the best. I actually liked the old Mariucci, bad seats and all. At least it had character, and plenty of it. From Goldy’s perch to the worn out benches one sat on, the place just oozed hockey from every nook and cranny. Great memories there.

  • GeauxSioux

    He has been to REA per his ‘hockey guides’ site. Still no Ralph. Get this guy, his College Composition 101 writing and his Geocities webpage out of here.

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