It is hard to imagine an arena that is having a better run these days than St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. Seems a week doesn’t go by when the arena isn’t in the news receiving some plaudits. In December, Sports Illustrated decided, in part because of the nonstop sellouts at Xcel, to take the title of “Hockeytown” away from Detroit and move it west.Year Opened: 2000
Owner: City of St. Paul
Architect: HOK Sport
Cost: $130 million
Web Site: xcelenergycenter.com
Anchor Tenants: Minnesota Wild (NHL) / Minnesota Swarm (NLL)
Parking: The Xcel Energy Center is serviced by two ramps (RiverCentre and Kellogg) directly connected to the complex. Keep in mind that the RiverCentre and Kellogg ramps fill up early and alternate plans should be made for entering the city, as well as finding parking during events. If you are fortunate, you may find a parking meter near the arena. They are free after 4:30 p.m. There are several nearby parking lots that run from $10-25. Our personal recommendation is the Victory Ramp (344 N. Wabasha). It costs $6 and is a 10-minute walk from the arena.
It is hard to imagine an arena that is having a better run these days than St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. Seems a week doesn’t go by when the arena isn’t in the news receiving some plaudits. In December, Sports Illustrated decided, in part because of the nonstop sellouts at Xcel, to take the title of “Hockeytown” away from Detroit and move it west.
Red Fisher, the esteemed hockey writer for the Montreal Gazette, called it one of the best hockey buildings he had ever seen. The St. Paul Chamber of Commerce said Xcel has been a boon to the city, bringing in some $25 million into a downtown area that is normally quiet at night.
All of the praise seems justified. For an arena that was built eight years ago, Xcel seems as fresh as morning dew. HOK Sports, which built the place, is better known for its baseball and football stadiums. But they know how to make an ice sheet, having constructed nine arenas (six in the NHL) and are slated to start shortly on their tenth in Pittsburgh.
The NHL’s Minnesota Wild, the building’s main tenant, has been a hit from day one. They have sold out every game they have ever played at home since entering the league in 2000 (300 at this writing). There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the Twin Cities is a huge hockey market, and one suspects the locals genuinely missed having a NHL team. (The Minnesota North Stars, an original expansion team, played at Bloomington’s Met Sports Center from 1967-91 before owner Norm Green moved them to Dallas.) Secondly, St. Paul is a city that is frequently in Minneapolis’ shadow. When the chance came to build a building that would house a NHL team, then-mayor Norm Coleman took no chances and cut through all possible red tape to get the deal done. The little brother had a rare chance to shine in the spotlight and took it. The arena comes in third in this pecking order but that’s no disgrace. While it is likely the locals would have come to NHL games at the X’s predecessor, the bland St. Paul Civic Center, the fact that the team plays in a new and nifty building is a big help.
And make no mistake about Xcel. Although it has hosted the things you might expect in an arena (concerts, lacrosse, basketball and rodeos) and will be the home for the Republican National Convention in September, this is a hockey building first and foremost.
It starts from the moment you walk in the door. There are monuments to hockey everywhere. In the second level of the arena (parts of which is very visible before you even enter the arena) contains jerseys from every high school team in the state and some that don’t exist any more. (For example, Monroe, a St. Paul school that closed in 1977, has a jersey in a prominent place as you enter from the south.) There are old arena pictures on all levels, flags with hockey history written on them, a tribute to college hockey’s Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier winners (the male and female puck equivalent of the Heisman) and a Wall of Fame where those who have played at Xcel on and off the ice signed a puck. (Wonder how many pucks Mick Jagger has signed over the years?) All that is missing is a Zamboni to whisk you to your seat. (Though there is an antique Zamboni displayed in the concourse as well.)
We were struck by how many entrances there are at the X and how easy it is to get in and get moving. The Wild had two years to get ready and they used that time well. The arena (and, indeed, the game-day operation) has incorporated many ideas and concepts from many places. The team must have seen the long lines at the Metrodome for football and baseball games and the inconvenient maneuvering one has to do to get to hoops’ games at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. Even if you arrive 15-20 minutes before game time, which is like driving on a freeway in rush hour, it didn’t take long at all to get through the doors. Once inside, the hallways spread out quickly and it is fairly easy to head to your seats. One of the arena’s few drawbacks, however, occurs if you sit in the suites in the second deck or if you’re headed up to the third deck. There is only one escalator, located in the northeast corner of the building. If you don’t know that, you may find yourself walking around the building looking for a way to go up. There are elevators but they tend to run slowly due to the fact this is also the only way game-day personnel and press-box denizens can get to their appointed perches. The escalator is the quickest way to get upstairs (it takes about a minute to get to the third deck) and it runs in reverse at game’s end.
Once you’re in the building, it’s easy to get distracted before you get to your seat. We noted earlier some of the things the Wild did to give the building more of a hockey feel. There are other distractions as well. For example, before and during the first two periods of every Wild game, there is a Silent Auction going on near the Kellogg Ave. entrance. On a recent night when we were there, it was quite the unusual collection. There was an autographed Larry Murphy North Star jersey. (Murphy, an excellent offensive-minded defenseman, played 121 games for the North Stars from 1989-91 as part of a 20-year career.) There were nicely matted pictures of Minnesota Twins’ first baseman Justin Morneau and Hall of Fame golfer Jack Nicklaus. There was a terrific photo of the race hose Secretariat thundering down the stretch at a Triple Crown race. For the oldies, there was an autographed Bobby Orr photo. For the football crowd, you could bid on an autographed pic of Viking rookie Adrian Peterson. These are all pictures that one could buy in any decent memorabilia store – perhaps for less of a price. But the money here goes to a good cause – the Wild’s Community Outreach Programs.
We’ll cover concessions in greater detail a bit lower but there is one thing that deserves comment here. Vendors don’t seem to roam the crowd as often at the X as we’ve seen in other buildings. That’s probably because there are a lot of stands and, with the exception of one place near the Kellogg Avenue entrance, all of them seem to move quickly. There are also vendors who simply set up shop in the hallways. As a result, the hallways can get fairly crowded between periods. (One odd result of this traffic: three different men complained about the long lines for the rest room near the main entrance. One hopes they didn’t tell this to their spouses. They’re not likely to get much sympathy.)
The lower bowl of Xcel is mainly season-ticket holders. The sightlines are solid, the rows aren’t too long (the Wild learned from their counterparts at the Metrodome, where some of the rows have 36 seats) and the ushers are polite and helpful. We spotted one usher holding up fans from going to their seats while play was on. When there was a whistle, he always thanked them for their patience. One oddity: in the non-Zamboni end of the building, the goal judge is nestled in between fans. Minnesotans are notoriously polite and never seem to interfere with his work but one wonders why the building just didn’t build a cage for the guy. The answer, of course, is these are prime seats along the glass. A protective cage would probably take up space for several seats. (One tip: a Standing Room Lower Rail ticket is $42. If you don’t mind being in a corner, you can get a pretty good view of the game.)
As in most new buildings, the second level is sweet seating. We refer, of course, to club seating and suites. Although it’s back from the ice a bit, this level provides a terrific view of the game. The suites come with the usual amenities and the service is solid; suffice it to say that if a friend offers you a chance to sit in their suite for a game, take it. Similarly, if you have a chance to sit in the club level, do it: the concessions are more abundant and feature sit-down dining, while the views of the action are tremendous.
The Upper Level offers several options. There are $16 tickets in the ends that are sold out for the year (so are the $35 Upper Level seats). That leaves two ticket prices available — $22 (ends) and $44 (sides). We don’t recommend these for people who have vertigo issues — particularly you have a tendency to lean forward during a game. It’s nobody’s fault – just the curse of having an 18,000-seat building. As is available below, there are some limited seats that are located behind the rows. You sit or stand and lean forward onto a small rail. You’re fairly far back but you can see everything.) The Upper Level concourse is also fairly tight – particularly so when you compare it to the main level. Again, geography has its limits. The X does try to make up for this with an interesting variety of concessions stands. (Our personal favorite was a stand in a corner that offers a carved roasted turkey/ham sandwich platter. It cost 10 bucks but looked yummy.) You better take note of those concessions stands. We were at the X on New Year’s Eve in a third-deck seat and never saw a vendor in the Upper Level seats all night.
The Wild put a lot of thought into this. Like with the arena, they took ideas that have worked in other places and added some of their own. Prior to the introduction of the starting lineup, there is a short video setting up a storyline for the game. One of the best moments of a Wild game follows as a youngster dashes from the Zamboni end and skates to center ice. The youngster then pounds a stick into the ice with the Wild flag attached to it and exhorts the crowd. The Wild hit the ice as a foghorn blasts and a fog blasts emotes from a corner of the arena. This idea came directly from old Chicago Stadium and usually brings the staid Minnesotans to life. (The same horn and fog comes to life when the home team scores.)
When the North Stars came to Met Sports Center in 1967, Bob Utecht, their public address announcer, started each game by announcing “Let’s Play Hockey” prior to the start of the game. The Wild have taken this a step farther and usually have a celebrity or a well-known local do the honors from a perch near the press box. It probably looks and sounds cheesy to some out-of-towners. But locals love it, so that’s all that matters.
During the TV timeouts (or regular stoppages), there is hardly a second to catch your breath. Whether it is a promo, an update on the minor league teams or the latest trend in local pro sports here (a weather report), something is always going on the screen over center ice. The organist, whose keyboard is set on a Zamboni, gets in his licks, too. Between periods, there are always youth games and some type of race or trivia contest to keep the crowd interested. As noted earlier, once the team hits the ice at the start of a game, there is rarely a quiet moment in the X.
Minnesotans know their hockey and like to watch the game. The current Wild team has an exciting young star – Marian Gaborik – and some other very good players who follow coach Jacques Lemaire´s tight system. As a result, when Gaborik touches the puck, the place automatically lights up. Otherwise, the locals tend to take a wait-and-see approach to the action. The crowd is not as passive as, say, Toronto, nor as they are as noisy as you might find in Chicago or New York. The team tries its best to work the crowd into a frenzy during stoppages, but the efforts frequently fall flat. One other Minnesota oddity: If a game goes long and nears 10 p.m., the fans start to leave no matter the score. There are theories as to why this is but we put it down to simple local idiosyncrasies. It might explain why the team plays so many 5 p.m. games on Sundays.
If you go hungry and thirsty here, it’s your own fault. There are all sorts of foods at all sorts of prices. We mentioned the Ham/Turkey player we found on the Upper Level. We also found a South Of The Border Canteen that offers taco salads, mojitos and margaritas – hardly standard arena fare. Another stand offered Beef Jerky. Just when you think you have entered the world’s largest deli, you find hot dogs, brats and hamburgers. There are bars of all shapes and sizes, offering just about every type of pop and beer you have ever heard of. Wine and some cocktails are available in the hallways. The prices are a bit high but in line with most arenas. There are some sports bars type settings around, too. Get there early if you want to visit them. They are very crowded prior to the game.
There are a lot of these stands as well around the building. The main store is just inside Kellogg Ave. entrance. It has the usual supply of jerseys, sweatshirts, hats, pucks, etc. For our money, the best deal around was a pullover jacket that looked comfy for just $40. There are souvenir stands on all levels with a fairly wide variety of items. The Wild don’t miss a lot of tricks. They even offer a souvenir yearbook, one of the few major-league franchises that still does so. The game programs are $3 and are always sold by a youth hockey group. Although the program lacks a scorecard, there is plenty of stuff to read about during the short intervals when nothing is going on. On our most recent trip, the stat totals only missed one game – about as good as you can do considering it was a Sunday game.
We noted this above but it deserves repetition. Xcel Energy Center is on the edge of downtown St. Paul. As a result, it is easy to get to coming in off I-94 East. Downtown St. Paul can be very confusing to the out-of-towner. (One street actually goes in three different directions.) As you come in off I-94, you may run into some high priced lots. If you’re not on a budget, go ahead and take them. But if you’re patient, you may be rewarded. There are several parking meters that are free after 4:30 p.m. If you go past the arena and are willing to walk 4-6 blocks, you may find one of them. The closer you get to Lowertown, the lower the parking prices are. As noted above, the Victory Ramp (344 N. Wabasha) is our personal choice. Insider’s Tip: When you come out of that ramp on Wabasha, you can only turn right. If you follow it straight for about a half-mile, you will see an exit for I-94 West, which can send you on your way. Many visitors don’t know this route and get stuck trying to work past the History Center to get to Minneapolis.
Two notes of caution:
1) Don’t park at a covered meter. You will get towed. Just ask any Minnesotan who lives here year-round how quick cars get towed when they don’t obey laws.
2) St. Paul has many one-way streets. Former governor Jesse Ventura caught a lot of heat for making fun of downtown St. Paul’s design on a national TV show but he wasn’t all off base. It is confusing to the out-of-towner.
Give St. Paul a try after the game
OK, we admit a little bias here. We’ve lived in St. Paul for 36 years and think it gets a bad rap occasionally. St. Paul isn’t New York. It isn’t Minneapolis. But there are some good spots if you have an urge to go out after a game. The St. Paul Hotel is across Rice Park from the arena. The visiting teams usually stay there, as do celebrities when they come to town. The bar/restaurant is a bit pricey but if budget is not an issue, go for it. (One trick: the bar menu usually offers great deals.) There are several other places of various shapes, sizes and ethnic taste within walking distance of the X in what is considered downtown proper. Most of them are a bit pricey but are usually open after games.
The fun crowd, however, usually heads up W. 7th Street away from downtown before or after a game. Tom Reid, a former North Star defenseman who also does color on the team’s radiocasts, opened a sports bar a couple blocks away that does a banner business (258 W. 7th St.). McGovern’s, a block from the X, offers old-fashioned home-cooked meals (like turkey dinners with cranberries and dressing) that can be washed down with whatever beverage you like (225 W. 7th St.). Cossetta’s is a nifty Italian joint that also has a takeout delicatessen (211 W. 7th St.). The Liffey, across the street from the X, is usually hopping after a game, offering an Irish flavor in food and beverage (175 W. 7th St.). Post-game traffic can be nasty since most people only know one way to get to I-94. You can save yourself a big hassle if you are willing to wait after a game for 30-60 minutes. One personal recommendation for a pre-game meal: Mancini’s, about a mile and a half from the X, offers an outstanding steak (531 W. 7th St). During the state high school hockey tournament, this place will be packed and serve thousands of customers. It is one of the few times they take reservations.
Kellogg and Seventh has been the home to hockey in Minnesota for decades. The old St. Paul Auditorium — still standing but subsumed as part of the larger RiverCentre complex, now called the Roy Wilkins Auditorium — was home to the old minor-league St. Paul Saints. The Xcel Center sits on the site of the old St. Paul Civic Center, which featured clear board and a pugnacious outfit, the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints, led by the colorful Glen Sonmor.