As I have said before, Hockey is a Cult here in Minnesota. Let me explain, what I mean by cult. When I first moved to town the NorthStars were in their final days before relocating to Dallas. I was surprised and shocked to read the local papers and see Hockey relegated to page two status in the Sports section. I had always assumed that Minnesota was a hotbed of hockey, due to the long tradition of professional and amateur players and coaches. So it was shocking to see that Hockey’s popularity was not as widespread around the Metro area as it is in any Canadian city, or even a place like Boston, or Buffalo.
However, what I did discover is that those that do follow the sport, do so with a certain religiosity. They are an insular group that is intensely passionate about all levels of the sport. I think that this is what distinguishes the Hockey Cult here. People don’t just follow the NHL, they also follow the college game, the national team, and the high school game. A cult in the truest sense of the word.
Growing up in Western N.Y. in the 70’s, our family followed the great Sabres teams of the period. The French Connection of Perrault, Martin and Robert, and the heart throbs like Jim Scoenfield and Danny Gare were household names. We played street hockey dang near every day from November to May in the street in front of 20 Prospect. The youth game didn’t come to town until the 1980’s when Batavia finally built an ice arena, far too late in my life for me to play the sport, but it never stopped me from loving it.
Going to college at Clarkson exposed me to the Division 1 college game. So when I arrived in St. Paul in January of 1993 I was happy to be back in Hockey Country. It was an eventful time in the history of Minnesota hockey. The evil Norm Green was moving the beloved NorthStars to Texas, and the University of Minnesota was getting ready to open a brand new hockey arena on their campus. In the High School ranks, the State was in the midst of transitioning to the divided large school / small school divisions at the State Tournament. Depending on who you talk to, this was either the beginning of the end of Old Time Hockey, or the dawn of a new day.
The first hockey game I attended in the state was on Friday March 12th, 1993 at the old Mariucci Arena. It was the first of a two game WCHA playoff series against the North Dakota Sioux. I returned the next night to take in the second game of the series, and the final game to be played in the old arena. Old Mariucci was in the other half of the Barn, housing Williams Arena, which is still the home of the basketball team. It had been converted from a field house into a Hockey Arena in 1949, and had an odd quirk in that one end of the rink protruded under the stands of the basketball arena, resulting in an odd, low ceiling, that had a habit of deflecting pucks back down into play.
The next season the Gophers moved into the new hockey palace that they were building across the street. Named, oddly enough, the “new” Mariucci Arena. My friend Chris being a grad student at the time, we went in on a set of season tickets for the inaugural season. This past weekend, when he was in town, we paid another visit to Mariucci for the Gophers game against Bemidji State, and I brought along my camera to take some pictures. Mariucci is without a doubt, the finest building I have ever watched a hockey game in. There isn’t a bad seat in the place, and the facilities are first class. It holds just over 10,000 people, but feels so intimate that it seems much smaller.
While the Gophers dropped the game to the Beavers, and continue to flounder through another year of mediocrity, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. Sitting 3 rows up behind the glass for all of $25, what’s not to love?
For more on Minnesota Hockey visit the amazing Vintage Minnesota Hockey site, which is the most comprehensive site on the intertubes for the Minnesota Hockey Catechism.