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Mariucci Arena / Minnesota Golden Gophers

College hockey is a big deal in only a few parts of the United States. Most of the 59 colleges that play the sport at the Division I level have fans that are passionate about their team. For years, many teams played in small arenas that didn’t cater to customer comfort. Mariucci Arena, now 14 years old, was one of the first college hockey venues to change that thinking. Its large capacity and excellent sightlines gave inspiration to many other schools who also have improved on the product.

Year Opened: 1994
Capacity: 10,000
Owner: University of Minnesota
Original Cost: $20 million
Architect: Graham Edmunds; Opus Architects & Engineers
Web Site:
Phone: 612/625-5804
Parking: Varied options. See below for details.
Address/Directions: 1901 4th St. SE., Minneapolis, MN 55455. Mariucci Arena is accessible from both interstates 94 and 35W. From the north or south, take I-35W to the University Avenue exit and travel southeast to Oak Street. Turn left on Oak Street and travel one block north to Fourth Street. From the west, take I-94 to 35W North and follow the above directions. From the east, take I-94 to the Huron Boulevard exit. Follow Huron Boulevard north until it turns into Fourth Street at the intersection of Oak Street.

By Dave Wright

College hockey is a big deal in only a few parts of the United States. Most of the 59 colleges that play the sport at the Division I level have fans that are passionate about their team. For years, many teams played in small arenas that didn’t cater to customer comfort. Mariucci Arena, now 14 years old, was one of the first college hockey venues to change that thinking. Its large capacity and excellent sightlines gave inspiration to many other schools who also have improved on the product.

While this is not a perfect building – and driving to it can be a major challenge – Mariucci is one of the best college hockey arenas in the country. Even this season – when the Golden Gophers are uncharacteristically in seventh place in the competitive Western Collegiate Hockey Association — a trip here is a reminder why college athletics can stir souls into fits of frenzy.

Let’s handle the bad news first. Although the directions listed above are accurate, getting in – and out – of the area can try your patience. University Avenue, a main St. Paul thoroughfare, comes to a stop at Oak Street, leaving you only way to go. As noted below, parking can be an adventure, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the area and if you arrive after dark. There are few helpful signs for the uninitiated. If you’re going for the first time, talk to somebody who has been there before or look at a map. Special note: There are several one-way streets near the arena. Some of them are not well marked. Consider yourself warned.

Once you get inside, however, things change quickly. This is a bright, cheerful building. The ticket office (and the main way to get inside the arena) is on the lower level so you need to take the escalator or the steps to get to the actual arena. It was an expensive building to build because there are no posts inside. Instead, the seats are one big bowl all the way around. Although most of the sections have reasonable seating, there are a few 26-seat rows in the corners. (Mariucci did an unusual thing in those corners. Several of the sections are divided near the walkway by a small series of steps that basically cut the back six rows in half. It does make it easier to get in and out of those sections.)

All seats in the bowl are $30 while standing room, which also offers a good view of the ice, is a not-very cheap $27. Getting around the building is fairly easy because the walkways are fairly wide. But it may take you a while. There are several history lines regarding the Minnesota program, which has a glorious past. There is a tribute to former Olympic coach Herb Brooks and John Mariucci, the man the rink is named for. (He is considered the Godfather of Minnesota hockey. A former player and coach there, he was a passionate advocate for American kids.) Past Gopher teams are noted through pictures and information. There is information on the Hobey Baker award, college hockey’s answer to the Heisman Trophy. Like Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, this is a hockey building first and foremost – although it branched out in March 2008 and hosted its first basketball games ever.

Minnesota is a perennially good draw. At this writing, their current average attendance of 9,908 is third in the country and their 99.1 percentage of seats filled in the place ranks ninth. On the night we were there, it was a late arriving crowd for a game with rival North Dakota. The building was perhaps half full for the opening face-off but almost filled to the rafters by the middle of the first period.

Mariucci was built at a time when Olympic size ice sheets (200 x 100 feet instead of the NHL’s 200 x 85 dimensions) were all the rage. The result is a lot of open ice and (potentially) a fast-paced game. Their fans remind one of attending a British soccer game. Minnesota backers are loud and tend to chant at opposing players and officials, sometimes using salty language. (The pep band is very active and lively, too.) Since college hockey frequently sees more penalties called than at NHL games, the chanters stay busy. Most of it is harmless but puritans should be warned in advance – this ain’t church.

College hockey has been slow to catch up to college basketball in many areas. A scoreboard is one of those categories. Mariucci was one of the first college hockey rinks in the country to get the big board with video capabilities hanging over center ice. The Gophers use it for promotion as much as anything. The night we were there, they did run a reply of Minnesota’s only goal (in a 2-1 OT loss) and a few good saves by the goalie. Even more than the pros do, college athletics caters to the advertiser and so it is here. Still, the board gives you what you need to know. In addition, there are auxiliary boards behind the seats offering a précis of a game’s necessary ingredients – score, time, period and penalty clocks.

Being located in a major market with a successful NHL franchise only a couple of miles away cuts both ways. Gopher games at Mariucci tend to straddle a fine line. One the other hand, hockey is an expensive sport to run and the school is grateful for any advertiser it can get. Hence, there are ads crammed wherever the school can put them. But there still is an air of genuine old-fashioned rah-rah enthusiasm prevalent. Everybody seems to know everybody in the WCHA. North Dakota, the visitors on this night, brought several fans of their own – many of them dressed in the team’s green colors. They sat in one corner and the hardcore Gopher supporters were at the other end of the building. The twain doesn’t meet because season ticket holders own many of the middle seats. (Good thing, too. The next night, the players engaged in several pier sixers, including a wild melee at the end of the game. At one point, Dave Hakstol, the North Dakota coach, offered a one-fingered opinion of the referee’s work. He received a two-game suspension for his transgression. It was a good thing the hardcore fans were on opposite ends of the building.)

Perhaps the biggest in-game weakness is the public address system. Walking around the building, there were several times when it was simply undecipherable. At other times, you could hear it faintly. It’s hard to say why this is. The piped in music during warm-ups and at other times in the game seem to go fine. Most scoring plays do get listed on the big scoreboard, however.

After 14 years, the arena is getting its first serious makeover this summer. The boards will be replaced and netting is going up at each end of the rink. The arena has been used mainly for hockey since its inception but it will host its first basketball games when a couple of rounds of the state boys tournament is held there. If successful, this might mean an expansion of activity for the future. Now if they could only do something about parking….

The official game program costs $4, runs 104 pages and does contain up-to-date rosters and statistics. There is a scorecard in the middle of it for those folks who still keep that sort of thing. The pictures are well done and there is plenty of information for someone to read regarding the Gophers’ impressive history and profile of several of the key members of the school’s hierarchy. There are coaches’ bios, players’ pictures and a profile of one of them. The program is a dollar more than what is charged for NHL games in St. Paul but the price is worth it.

It’s an interesting variety – and there are some good bargains to be found. Besides standard arena fare, there are stands for Subway, Famous Dave’s, Dino’s Gyros (a Greek meat sandwich) and Kemp’s Ice Cream. Minnesotans love mini-donuts. You can get them here for $4.50 for 15 or so. They also have something funnel cakes, a Dutch pastry that is usually served with powdered sugar or jam. All in all, you shouldn’t go hungry here. Because the building is on the college campus, there is no alcohol sold.

There is a huge shop that can rival any pro team’s facility at one end of the building. It has everything you could think of in a college environment and a few things unique to the Midwest – like ski caps and mittens. The best deal we saw was a lined jacket for $49. Sweatpants were running $45, which seemed a little high but jerseys were going for $85. This is Minnesota so the place is heavy on sweatshirts and lighter on t-shirts. There are some smaller souvie stands around the building but the prices seem the same. All in all, there is plenty to choose from. But, like a lot of things in college hockey, the price of enjoyment has gone up a bit.

As noted above, this is perhaps the biggest weakness of a trip to Mariucci. You are well advised to come early. The arena is on the west side of the Gopher campus, just off University Avenue, a main street. On the night we were there, University (which starts in downtown St. Paul) had a lane closed near the arena for no apparent reason. The new football stadium is being built across the street from the arena, wiping out a main public lot. There is one lot north of the arena when you can park for $9. If you’re in the mood to walk, go to nearby Washington or Oak Street if you can find an open meter or on University going towards St. Paul. There is a ramp two blocks west of the arena when you can park for $6. Getting in that ramp is no problem but getting out can take a while. Your only other option is a variety of small lots and alleyways that charge from $10-20.

Area Ambience Abounds
It’s a college neighborhood so there are a lot of nearby places to go before and after a game for food or drink. If you arrive early enough, a trip through Dinkytown west of the arena is always worthwhile. There is plenty of variety to choose from but one warning: if you are 40 years old, you might be the oldest person in the place. Vescio’s Originale (406 14th Ave. SE) is a legendary place north of the arena. It’s open until 10:30 p.m. and certainly worth a visit. It’s simple Italian food – reasonably price and very filling. (The Italian Style Garlic Bread with pepperoni is not recommended for dieters.) A lot people headed south of the arena end up at Stub & Herbs (227 Oak St. SE). It has been around forever and is a popular hangout for Gopher fans before and after games. Our personal favorite is Campus Pizza and Bar (868 S. Washington). The pizza is quick and hot, the beer is cold and the prices are reasonable. In a span of three blocks, however, there are several well-known fast food places as well, including a Korean restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, and a place that specializes in chicken fingers and an old-fashioned teahouse.

As noted earlier, this is the second ice home for the Golden Gophers. Their original arena was located next door to the current Williams Arena basketball arena. It was opened in 1928 as a field house that was used a practice facility for basketball and hockey. In 1949, it was remodeled, turned into a hockey arena and renamed for Dr. Henry Williams, who coached football at Minnesota from 1900-1921. (It was renamed Mariucci Arena in 1985.)

The Golden Gophers called the old airplane hangar home ice from 1950-93 and were very tough to defeat there. Although it had a capacity of roughly 8,000, Williams/Mariucci only had a couple of thousand good seats. Most of those were located in the upper deck on the basketball side of the building. Unless you had seats near the roof, you had a clear view of the entire rink. The lower deck, which contained the majority of the seats, had a lot of obstructed views of the ice and could be very uncomfortable. (The building had limited standing room views – most were in the corners of the lower deck. Weirdly, this offered some of the best views in the house. Some longtime ticket holders preferred standing in the corner than being in their actual seats.)

The locker rooms were located next to each other in the basement of the building. The west end of the building had several windows. During day games, the sun could actually cause a problem for teams going in that direction. There was a small girder at that end that would be used by photographers and TV cameramen. On at least one occasion, an enterprising pair of visiting TV announcers called the game from that spot. However, because it was only about 50 feet from the ice, they wore facemasks. The team’s mascot, Goldy Gopher, sometime stood there to egg on the crowd. More than once, the mascot was felled by a deflected shot. In spite of those issues, Williams/Mariucci was a much beloved building by the hockey crowd. When full, the place really rocked, offering a terrific game atmosphere.

Like Chicago Stadium, the team had to go up a series of stairs to get to the ice. As a result, when the Gophers were spotted coming around the corner and heading for the ice (they had go through or near the visitors bench to do so), the crowd would start roaring at high pitch. Visitors occasionally had to deal with overflow crowds during games and had to pass unfriendly fans to get to their locker room. For the most part, this went off without incident but there were the occasional skirmishes. On one memorable occasion, U of M defenseman Bill Butters (who had been excused for the evening) got into a row with several members of the Colorado College bench, including the backup goalie, who was standing near the glass. Nearby police had to intervene to keep fans from joining in the fray.

The hockey crowd liked the old place but many others didn’t. In the early 1980s, it was determined that it was impossible to expand the building’s seating capacity. When the new arena was constructed nearby, they took the ice out for good at Williams/Mariucci. But the building gets a lot of use. Renamed the Sports Pavilion (its capacity was reduced to 5,700), it became the home for the school’s gymnastics, women’s basketball, volleyball and wrestling teams. Eventually, women’s basketball moved all their games to Williams Arena while wrestling holds matches in both places. Volleyball has flourished at the Sports Pavilion. In 2007, the Gophers averaged 3,300 fans per home match – fourth best in the country. The building has served as the host facility for several Big Ten Gymnastics meets.