In the early 1960s, college hockey was barely a thing, with most programs housed in small facilities or in off-campus rinks. With the opening of the Duluth Arena fifty years ago, that status changed, with the bar dramatically raised for what fans and players can expect from a college-hockey facility.
Like most university hockey programs, the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs were not treated with a whole lot of love and respect in the 1950s and early 1960s: the team played out of Duluth Curling Club, a small (2,000-capacity) arena with a non-regulation ice sheet and small locker rooms. While the college had upgraded the hockey program over the years-moving to Division I in 1961 and joining the WCHA in 1965-one piece of the puzzle remained: a top-notch facility. To the south, the University of Minnesota had its own on-campus hockey sheet as part of Williams Arena, and several other universities were building their own hockey arena or planning to build one. For instance, Brown University’s Meehan Auditorium opened in 1961 and hosted the Frozen Four in 1965.
Duluth civic leaders were very aware that a new arena would be an important recruiting tool for the Bulldogs and potentially raise the program to the top echelon of college hockey. In northern Minnesota, they take their hockey seriously: John Mayasich, Tommy Williams and brothers Roger and Billy Christian all hailed from northern Minnesota and were all on the underdog 1960 Olympic team that snared the first hockey gold medal for the United States. Keeping that northern Minnesota talent close to home was a big reason for a new arena.
And so was born Duluth Arena-Auditorium, a combination facility with a 2,300-seat auditorium and a 5,300-capacity arena. Costing $6.5 million, Duluth Arena was built for fan comfort: padded chairs throughout, a decently sized concourse and some of the best sightlines of any arena anywhere. An August 5, 1966 opening celebration featured Lorne Greene, Buddy Hackett and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. As a hockey venue, Duluth Arena opened with a bang on Nov. 19, 1966 when the UMD Bulldogs defeated state rival University of Minnesota, 8-1, behind six assists from senior center Keith “Huffer” Christiansen.
Eventually UMD entered the upper echelon of collegiate hockey, starting with four NCAA tournaments in the 1980s and consistently competitive teams featuring the likes of Tom Kurvers, Curt Giles, Bill Watson and coach Mike Sertich. And Duluth Arena, built on the site of a former scrapyard, ended up leading to a Canal Park renaissance: a run-down waterfront is now a thriving tourism and meeting destination. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Cher all performed at the Duluth Arena stage. The Duluth Arena-Auditorium evolved into the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center after some additions, including a convention space and, ironically, space for the Duluth Curling Club.
The DECC now features two arenas: Amsoil Arena opened in 2010 and continues to draw good crowds for UMD hockey, albeit on a larger scale. Most cities can’t support two arenas, but Duluth does: there are over 500 events annually at the DECC, and the old Duluth Arena (now named DECC Arena) remains a popular venue for smaller events, including a packed Bernie Sanders rally this summer. The concourse was revamped this summer, and there’s no reason to think why the arena won’t be around in another 50 years.
Which was the goal all along. At a time when some storied Minnesota arenas from that era have gone by the wayside, including Met Center and the St. Paul Civic Center, the old Duluth Arena keeps going strong as an integral part of the community.
Photos courtesy DECC.
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