About two months, the WCHA Blog kicked off its list of which WCHA arenas are the best. I'm basing my list off of three criteria (Arena, Atmosphere, and Crowd). For a detailed list of what these three items mean to me, click here and scroll down a bit.
Here is a list of the arenas that I've already covered:
10. Sullivan Arena - Anchorage, AK
9. John MacInnes Student Ice Arena – Houghton, MI
8. Alltel Center – Mankato, MN
7. World Arena – Colorado Springs, CO
6. Magness Arena – Denver, CO
5. DECC – Duluth, MN
4. National Hockey Center – St. Cloud, MN
3. Kohl Center – Madison, WI
This week, its arena No. 2: Ralph Engelstad Arena, which is home to the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux.
It terms of sheer building quality, there’s likely no arena or facility in the world that can compare to what the Ralph Engelstad Arena (REA) brings to the table. Right when you walk in the front door, you can see the quality of the building from floor to ceiling.
Right when you get inside, you’ll have a chance to walk through the REA’s gift shop, which is probably the best in the WCHA. Even though I’m not a Sioux fan, every time I peruse the gift shop, I can’t help but get jealous of the great array of gear they have the option of buying. The gift shop also sells official WCHA game pucks.
Before walking through the green gates and entering the arena’s concourse, there are several pictures of great Sioux teams form the past that are rich in history. Once you get inside the concourse area, you’ll notice the granite floors and wide hallways, among other things.
There are plenty of food and beverage options as one would expect, and there are also several bubble hockey tables to kill some time; some of them even feature custom-painted players to setup a Gopher / Sioux game.
Every seat in the REA is leather, which needless to say makes for a very enjoyable viewing experience. The sitelines in the arena are above average, but aren’t the greatest for hockey. The building is home to concerts and other non-hockey events, so that could be one cause for this.
Another issue is that some of the corner sections in the upper-deck have nearly 40 seats in a row, so if you’re sitting in the middle in one of those rows, you’ll have quite the trek to get to the aisle.
The REA toes the line in mixing the traditional collegiate atmosphere with the NHL-style 80s rock approach. It’s tough not to get excited for the game at hand after watching the pre-game video and player introductions. A mix between a great laser-light show and a music video showing big goals and hits by the Sioux certainly gets home (and, at least in my case, visiting) fans pumped for the game.
After the game starts, however, the UND band takes over, and they do a solid job.
I’ve only been to the REA for games where the Sioux have played the Gophers, but the atmosphere hasn’t reached the level I thought it would for these types of games. I think one reason for this may be that the arena is so nice, the crowd can’t be as intimidating as in other buildings like the DECC or the National Hockey Center, which allow for the crowd to be right on top of the action because of the design of the arenas.
At the old Ralph Engelstad Arena, there was just a feeling as an opposing fan that if your team was going up against a good UND team, you were really in for it. If you’re team was up in the third period, UND was going to storm back and win the game. If you were down in the third period, the game was over. I just don’t think the new REA has this kind of swagger to it.
For nearly each and every game, the new REA is on the verge of a sellout (11,640 is capacity for hockey games), thanks to the great season ticket base and the demand for Fighting Sioux tickets in the area. No team's fans are as passionate about their team as Sioux fans.
The students get prime real estate for their seating areas, as a good portion of the students sit between the bluelines in the lower level, with the rest of the students sitting in the same area in the 300 level. They are in the upper-half of the league in terms of a student body being loud and into the games.
As I said before, the building itself is second to none. Most fans are well aware by this point of all the great amenities and luxuries the building presents. When compared to the old REA though, there isn’t that same intimidation factor as an opposing fan. That behind said, it’s a great arena and I’m sure it’s No. 1 on many fans’ lists in terms of the best arena in the WCHA.
Overall Grade: A