More than 11,000 fans decked out in green and cheering on their hockey team is an amazing sight to view.
The University of North Dakota may have the best hockey facilities in college hockey. The Ralph Engelstad Arena is considered the Taj Mahal of college hockey.
Our family consists of both UND and University of Nebraska –Omaha hockey fans. Having lived in Grand Forks, our first taste of college hockey was here. So, we became UND fans. Now, since we live in Omaha, we have season tickets for the Mavericks. We cheer for both teams. That was great when they were in different conference. But, now that they’ve been in the same conferences together for the past few seasons, we find ourselves torn when they play. Basically, I root for a split series (two-game series) every time they play each other.
The arena, which opened in 2001, was a $100 million gift from former goalie and Las Vegas businessman Ralph Engelstad. Engelstad played for the school in the 1950s.
“The Ralph,” as it is known among UND fans, is a beautiful arena. I’ve been there before, but this marked the first visit for my daughter and her mom. When we lived in Grand Forks during the 1980s, the former Sioux played at the old hockey arena (named Ralph Engelstad Arena in 1988). We were impressed with the arena back then. It sat about 6,100 fans. We saw a lot of great games there, match-ups with Minnesota, Duluth, and Denver. I recall military tickets costing about $3-5 then. Our recent trip was a bit more expensive, with ticket prices at $45-50.
But, is it too expensive to see a top-rated college hockey team? North Dakota has won seven NCAA Division I national championships. Banners hang on the rafters of the national and conference championships.
The building has a beautiful exterior view. It has a brick exterior. The school’s logo is located throughout the building.
Near the entrance is a statue honoring Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.
The current hockey arena is laid out with a wide concourse, with several concession stands offering varieties of food, ranging from typical hockey fare of hot dogs to local delicacy “grinders” (sub sandwiches topped with taco meat) and Canadian import Tim Horton (donuts and coffee).
Local bands provide pregame entertainment with mini concerts.
The arena has the Sioux “logo” sketched on the floor. This has been considered controversial in recent years, especially when the school was negotiating with the National Collegiate Athletic Association in an attempt to keep the nickname. The NCAA had ruled Native American team names as offensive and unacceptable. Schools had to change their nicknames unless they received support from the tribes within their state. UND didn’t have that support from all the state’s tribes, so the nickname was dropped a few years ago.
The arena still has an abundance of Sioux logos scattered throughout the building, including railings and seats. As parts wear out and need replacement, the school cannot reuse the Sioux logo. Regardless of personal views on the nickname issue, we shall move on.
The arena has a sports shop, which sells all things North Dakota hockey. I’m not saying we went crazy, but each one of us left with enough UND garb to keep warm through a North Dakota winter.
The school has pennants and pictures throughout the arena recognizing the great UND alums, including Tony Hrkac (pronounced her-kuss), Jon Casey, Darren Jensen, Zac Parise, Jim Archibald and Dave Christian.
Huge pictures of former players dot the walls of the concourse. Ed Belfour is carrying the Stanley Cup trophy he won with the Dallas Stars as National Hockey League champions. Matt Greene is on a wall with his Cup won with the Los Angeles Kings last season.
Inside the arena, fans can have a great view of hockey action from any spot. Nothing blocks your view, except for the occasional camera operator. But, since almost every UND hockey game is on TV (regionally or nationally), you get used to it.
Fans are decked out in their school colors and cheer the team on loudly. I told Mallory and Kathy that The Ralph reminds me of Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium during a Nebraska home football game – packed and the fans are ready for a great win.
North Dakota runs a class operation. Fans are treated to a professional-level experience during the games. We had a laser light show on the ice during one period intermission. The show ended with a hockey player shape bordered in green light, and then showed the UND logo on the ice.
Cheerleaders perform dance and skating routines on the ice during intermission. They are also come up to every section of the arena to perform cheers during each game.
The play on the ice is also professional level. UND recruits some of the best players in the United States and Canada. Most UND recruits are draft picks from the NHL, including first round picks. UNO is getting to the point where several of its recruits are NHL caliber.
UNO is coached by Dean Blais. The coach won two national championships during his previous stint with North Dakota. Blais left UND for a coaching position in the NHL. He later joined UNO and helped spearhead the Mavs move to the same conference with UND.
We saw some great hockey during our visit. UND and UNO are rated in the top 15. UND was the second-rated team in hockey, while UNO was rated 11th. The teams played almost evenly the first night. At one point, I told Mal and Kathy that you could switch uniforms and they’d be the same team. They played to a 2-2 tie. But, UNO won the extra league point in a shootout following an overtime period.
UND took the series with a 3-2 win the next night. However, UNO dominated the third period, outshooting UND by like 15-3. The Mavs had their chances, but came up short.
The Ralph provided us a view into a classy facility. The games gave us a view of a professionally-run organization. The play on the ice provided us an exciting look at two of the best teams in college hockey this season.
Next time we are in Grand Forks, we need to make sure it’s a non-hockey weekend, so we can get a full tour of the facility, including the Olympic training area and the locker rooms. If you are in the area, take the time to get a view of The Ralph and maybe catch some great hockey.
For more information on the arena, please visit www.theralph.com.
For more information on North Dakota sports, please visit www.undsports.com.