North Dakota’s ‘Palace’ Ready to Throw Open Doors

The second you walked into the old Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., you knew this was North Dakota’s barn.

If you by some chance missed the plaques lining the concourse level, the green and white seats lit by rows and rows of blinding florescent lights hung from the duck-your-head low ceiling gave you the idea.

That was a rink.

The structure now in place on the north end of the school’s campus, rising over 100 feet above ice level on a site of more than 2 million square feet, is just a little different.

It is an arena. Or, more appropriately, as some have called it, a palace.

From the leather seats up to the 30,000-pound, $2 million scoreboard, the intention was to make this the greatest building ever built for college hockey.

When the new Ralph Engelstad Arena opens its doors on Friday with North Dakota and Minnesota taking the ice for the Hall of Fame Game, the public will form their opinions, but early reports suggest the designers hit the mark.

The best words North Dakota athletics director Roger Thomas can use to describe it all:

“It just is so hockey.”

One of the first things that grabbed Thomas in looking around the building was the structure itself.

“It’s done in a way with brick where it has a blend with our campus,” Thomas said. “Our campus has been around a long time and we have a lot of beautiful, well-kept buildings. It doesn’t look like it’s some new, plastic thing that would stick out. It blends in with the true college environment we have on our campus. I thought that was well done. So when you go inside, it kind of continues on.”

This building has been the subject of Sioux dreams for many years, but especially since No. 1 UND booster Ralph Engelstad announced in December 1998 that he was giving the school $100 million, roughly the cost of the new building.

The arena is being built by Engelstad, on land leased from the school. Engelstad has said it is his intention to turn over ownership of the building to the school when it starts to make money.

The wealthy businessman and former North Dakota goaltender has been actively involved in the construction process. He had a vision for what this building was going to look like, and he made it happen.

“He was very much in the creation of this and the thought process,” Thomas said. “He’s been very hands-on in the amenities in the building for a fan or for a student-athlete. He has really been into the project from start to finish.”

The Part Few See

While no expense was spared on the fan-friendly features, the underbody got a bit of work as well.

The ice-level facilities — the locker rooms, training rooms, player lounges and media facilities — were made to fit in with the building’s palacial theme.

The weight room? Only 10,000 square feet. If the Sioux aren’t the most fit team in the WCHA, it certainly won’t be for a lack of equipment.

The stick storage? Walk-in humidor to keep the air at a proper humidity for the lumber.

The sauna? Just about big enough for the whole team.

The whirlpool? Has a treadmill built in for rehab.

Sioux coach Dean Blais will get a better look at these facilities more than almost anyone else — once he gets there.

Blais has yet to make the move from the old Ralph to the new one. He sits in his old office while everyone else is at the new building.

“I’m sitting here in my old office, looking at some of the pictures that won’t be hung,” he said. “[Assistant coaches] Dave Hakstol and Brad Berry are already over there [at the new arena], they’ve been there for about a week. I have trouble leaving this place, to tell you the truth. I love the office, I love the arena.”

Not that Blais doesn’t appreciate the new building.

“There’s all the glitter: the [granite] tiles [100,000 square feet of them at $15 each], the leather seats [11,406 of them, at $150 each], the best of everything,” he said.

“Still, what I like is the downstairs area. You go out of your dressing room … right onto the ice, but the visitors do too. They don’t walk you around.

“The visiting bus drives right down the ramp, right next to the dressing room. You unload, shut the bus off, after the game load up and away you go.”

Those buses? Yeah, there’s room for four.

The Best From The Best

The vision for the new arena was to take the best of all the arenas in North America and replicate those pieces in Grand Forks.

Blais said the suites are patterned after ones at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., the Target Center in Minneapolis and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul., Minn., site of this season’s Frozen Four.

The eight-sided scoreboard and digital ring around the lower level are similar to ones in St. Paul.

“It’s not very often you get a chance to design your arena,” Blais said.

That’s why they had to do it right.

There’s some interesting quirks to those suites. If you’re a ticket holder (and if you’re not by now, good luck — all the tickets for the season are sold) and know someone in a suite, you can have your name put on a list for entry to the suite level.

A group of North Dakota farmers put up about $2,000 each, Blais said, to get a suite for a season.

“It’s not a real corporate building. You’re going to get people in from 200, 300 miles coming in for the weekend,” Blais said. “They were never able to do that in the old arena because it was all students and faculty. Half of the building was given away free to the students. Now the students have 2,000 tickets and most of the other seats are season [tickets].”

New All Over

The new Engelstad Arena is the second new building for North Dakota athletics this season. The football team moved into the Alerus Center, a city-owned building that doubles as a convention center.

“Any school is so blessed and so lucky to get a new facility in this day and age for any of their teams to play in,” Thomas said, “and for us to actually have two, literally almost at the same time, is amazing.”

The new Ralph also will double as a part-time basketball facility this season. The Sioux are scheduled to host national powerhouse Kansas on Dec. 22 in Engelstad Arena.

Thomas said it may also be used for some other UND basketball games throughout the season.

But that leaves out the old Engelstad, a building that has been awfully friendly to the Sioux hockey team. There are no plans for its future use, so when everything is moved out, they’ll lock the doors.

The school executed a study on the building’s future, and it came up with a number of possibilities, including razing the building, making it into a basketball arena and changing it into a student wellness center.

The chances the new Engelstad could host a Frozen Four, as the old one did, are slim. The NCAA now requires buildings that host the national championship have seating for more than 15,000, which the new arena does not.

It is scheduled to host the NCAA West Regional in 2006, but that looks like as high as the competition will go.

“It’s great to have the bigger arenas, where more people can come and watch everybody play in the championships,” Thomas said. “But on the other hand, it rules out a lot of arenas on campuses because they can’t be that big during the year. They just won’t make sense because you won’t have that big of a crowd. So it’s kind of a rock and a hard place.”

In a Frenzy

The atmosphere in Grand Forks is frenzied, Thomas said, not only because of the opening of the new arena, but because of the annual North Dakota-North Dakota State football game to be held a day later.

“With the opening of this arena and our big rivalry football game this weekend, there’s not a motel room for miles,” Thomas said. “The people are just going to be here in droves and truly enjoy some great competition.”

For those that have a ticket to Friday’s game, they’ll get an extra treat: a little piece of college hockey paradise.