By Shannon Valerio, Hockey VIPs Magazine
February 2, 2016
Grand Forks, North Dakota —
It’s a superlative so often thrown around it hardly seems a fair description when something truly worthy of the word comes along. But standing outside the Ralph Engelstad Arena on the University of North Dakota campus, thinking about the players who have called its ice home, the fierce rivalries and the championships that have been won here, it seems to fit.
UND is one of collegiate hockey’s legendary programs. On UND home ice, careers have been launched and dreams made reality. And the building that has seen it all — the rink affectionately known as “The Ralph”? Well, it is legendary too.
Come along with me as I explore this palace on America’s northern prairie. I will show you just what it is that sets this building apart from all other college hockey rinks. We will wander the concourses, the locker room and its other secret places. Afterward you might just put Grand Forks, North Dakota and a UND game on your hockey bucket list.
First, let’s take a walk through history and meet the man — Ralph Engelstad — whose vision brought to life the magnificent building sometimes referred to as the “Taj Mahal of hockey.”
Engelstad wasn’t just a UND fan. As a young man in the 1940s, he was the goalie for UND’s varsity team. He went on to make his fortune in construction, becoming a millionaire before the age of 30. But he never forgot his North Dakota roots donated $104 million to the university with the goal of building a state-of-the-art arena where fans would be treated to a world-class experience from the moment they walked through the doors until the gates closed.
Standing outside the facility, I am struck by the grandiose exterior that is the centerpiece of not just the university campus but arguably the entire town of Grand Forks. Despite North Dakota’s harsh winters, the building not only looks brand new nearly 15 years after it’s opening, but it rivals the appearance of any NHL arena — old or new. Thinking about the current and former NHL players who once called this rink home (Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise and T.J. Oshie just to name a few), I can’t wait to get inside to see what it holds.
Passing through the front doors, I find myself in a large foyer, with ticketing windows far to the right — a thoughtful touch that allows customers to purchase their tickets inside, away from the bone-chilling cold. Gates resembling those at a Major League Baseball park are set back to the left and the gift store — open everyday — is to my right. Immediately in front of me is a life-sized statue of Ralph Engelstad himself. On this day, there are Christmas trees on either side of the bronze statue. The vaulted ceiling adds to the grandiose feel and I can’t help but be awed by the initial impact.
Garth Wiedrich, the arena’s marketing manger, who is my guide for the day, said he loves to watch fans arriving at the arena for the first time. Seeing their amazed reactions, he said, is his favorite part of his job.
“You can tell the people that have never here before … their eyes get big … it’s a very different atmosphere,” he said.
It’s not just the atmosphere — the physical appearance of the arena is striking. Instead of carpet or industrial tiling, the floors on all the concourses and stairs are made of top-quality, Italian marble — and it is immaculately clean and sparkling.
The luxurious experience continues for fans in the stands. Forget what you know about collegiate arenas — there are no wooden benches or uncomfortable plastic seats here. Instead, spectators enjoy the game in plush comfort.
Every seat in the house is made of leather and cherry wood. Rather than utilitarian metal railings, thick, pristine glass lines the upper level so no view is obstructed. And though the rink has been in operation more than 10 years, the construction technology and design gives the appearance of a brand-new arena inside as well.
Going up to the upper concourse, I was introduced to what was one of my favorite places in the building. It’s a self-contained bar, large enough to be it’s own building. At the front there is a long counter with seating that is open to the arena and can be reserved by club seating members where they can view the game.
On the back wall of the bar is a refurbished, 1940s-era organ that nearly reaches the top of the cathedral ceiling. All spectators are welcome to visit the bar and, judging from the line to get in during games, it is one of the most popular locations in the building. Whether you’re drinking or not, the atmosphere is really cool and the doorman, an older gentleman named Al, whom everyone seems to know by name, is more of a greeter than a bouncer.
The sumptuous suites also deserve special mention, for they, too, would make just about any professional arena owner envious. Many are the size of a studio apartment with couches and big-screen TVs. Each suite comes with an attendant who serves guests from a private bar. Some suites even boast conference tables and are rented out during the week for business meetings and private parties. While I’m not usually big on watching hockey from an enclosed area, I think I would enjoy hanging out in one of these suites where I could either watch the action on one of the large televisions or sit in front of the glass doors that enclose each suite.
Walking through the arena, I can’t help but notice the number of Indian head logos that adorn nearly every corner of the building. More than 2,000 logos can be found in the building, from the large, marble Indian heads inlaid in the concourse floors to the small, brass Sioux-head medallion on each seat.
Engelstad — a staunch supporter of the former UND logo and mascot — the “Fighting Sioux” — embedded the logo everywhere to ensure the Sioux legacy would live on in the event of a name change (a battle that has been raging in the state for years). Perhaps he knew such a change was inevitable, as the NCAA recently upheld its decision to rid the league of most Native American mascots, leading UND to select a new one – the Fighting Hawk.
What does this mean for the arena? Not much, actually.
While the “Home of the Sioux” signage has been removed from the entrance of the building, and the gift shop is no longer permitted to sell “Fighting Sioux” or Sioux-style merchandise, the logo remains in most places.
Wiedrich said the NCAA has completed an assessment of the building and has allowed the majority of the Indian head logos to stay. Some of the logos are part of the construction of the building and would be nearly impossible to remove, and others are permitted to stay because they are considered historical in nature.
As grand as I found the arena in appearance, it is really only half of the experience. The other half: Game Night.
* * *
A few hours later I find myself walking back into the area — but the feel is completely different. Where the marble and soaring ceilings conjured a contemplative and museum-like feel in the light of day, now, the building is alive.
The doors are open. Spectators pour in, and there it is: That special buzz, that indefinable atmosphere Wiedrich boasted about earlier in the day.
What is it like? Take a moment to imagine an NHL crowd with the fervor and dedication of collegiate sports fans. Now imagine that crowd packed inside a beautiful monument to college hockey. Do you have it? Yes? Well, that’s an evening of hockey at the Ralph. The exuberant but friendly crowd makes for an amazing fan experience. And it’s an experience even the players notice.
Tariq Hammond, a sophomore defenseman for the University of Denver said the UND building is electric.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “At the end of the National Anthem, when they sing ‘and the home of the brave …’ the entire crowd yells ‘Sioux!’ and it just gives you shivers. You have to really work to calm yourself down and focus – it gets you so pumped.”
A sellout every game, there is definitely a home ice advantage. One entire side of the arena is reserved for students, and they lead the charge in chants, cheers and jeers.
Some cheers were far too, shall we say, enthusiastic to repeat as the front row of college students screamed onto the ice through the tiny slivers of space between the glass. Organized chants of “Sieve! Sieve!” reverberated throughout the arena whenever North Dakota scored.
Other aspects of the arena certainly must give UND a distinct advantage in recruiting. Witness the newly remodeled locker room area, which provides everything the team needs on both training and game days in an environment that rivals any NHL team.
As a strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer, I was impressed by the 10,000-square-foot workout facility, which is for the exclusive use of the men’s and women’s hockey teams. There were at least 10 lifting platforms, a dozen free weight stations and a separate room with special flooring built specifically for plyometric exercises. Adjacent to that, there is also an Olympic-sized training rink, which the team practices on before away games against opponents who play in larger rinks.
Leaving the facility, I go down several hallways adorned with museum-quality displays and photographs of past events and players. Photographs of famous alumni are proudly displayed, as are images of NHLers Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, who played at the arena during the 2005 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.
There are so many special touches that make the Ralph Engelstad Arena what Wayne Gretzky called “one of the most beautiful buildings we have in North America.” From the luxe fan-conscious seating and concessions to the game-day atmosphere “The Ralph” is indeed a special place.
While it’s true Grand Forks doesn’t provide much else for tourists in the middle of winter, a trip to UND and the Ralph Engelstad Arena is one every true hockey fan should consider making.
Photos: Shannon Valerio/Hockey VIPs MagazineTags: featured, NCAA Division I hockey, North Dakota Fighting Hawks, Ralph Engelstad, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Tariq Hammond, University of North Dakota, University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks