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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum Communications Co. , Published November 21 2012

With the NHL lockout, UND men's hockey is top-attended in North America

GRAND FORKS – With the NHL lockout, the University of North Dakota has become the most followed hockey team in North America.

UND is averaging 11,730 fans per game this season, slightly more than 100 percent capacity at Ralph Engelstad Arena. That beats out the top-drawing teams from the American Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League, the Central Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League, among others.

The second-highest drawing team in North America is the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL.

“I don’t know about the attendance marks, but I know about the energy our fans bring,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “It’s the best student section in the country. When we leave for pregame meal, there’s 1,000 students already lined up at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon. When we come back for the game, that student lineup out in the cold wraps halfway around the back of the arena. That, in itself, brings some excitement when you get to the rink.”

According to Herald research, only three teams worldwide are currently drawing more fans per game than UND – SC Bern (Switzerland), Eisbaren Berlin (Germany) and Kolner Haie (Germany). John Taveres, the New York Islanders and No. 1 overall pick three years ago, is playing for Bern. Philadelphia Flyers stars Danny Briere and Claude Giroux are playing for Berlin.

UND is outdrawing every team in the KHL, the Russian superleague where locked out NHL stars Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk are playing.

“That’s pretty crazy to think about,” UND rookie defenseman Jordan Schmaltz said. “It’s truly something special. I can’t believe all the support from the fans in the community. The whole city is behind the team. It’s pretty special to be a part of that. Knowing you’re going to come to the rink and play in front of a sold-out crowd every night is pretty incredible.”

Since the new Ralph Engelstad Arena opened in 2001, UND has been among the top three in college hockey in average home attendance. It also annually outdraws the minor league teams – a trend that has continued this year even though NHL players have filled some minor-league rosters.

After back-to-back sellouts last weekend against Minnesota-Duluth, UND’s average attendance has bumped just past The Ralph’s capacity, thanks to standing-room tickets.

UND’s remaining home series will be against Denver, Holy Cross, Colorado College, St. Cloud State, Wisconsin and Bemidji State.

“It’s awesome to come to the rink,” UND senior Danny Kristo said. “I think our fans are unbelievable. We definitely play well here at The Ralph. Hats off to our fans and everyone who cares about this university and this program so much.”

The fan support has translated to on-ice success, too.

UND has held the best home record in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in each of the last two seasons.

The WCHA, as a whole, is faring well in attendance. It is the most-viewed league in North America this season. The WCHA’s 12 teams are averaging 6,031 fans per game, which beats out the AHL’s average of 5,350.

Seven of the top nine in college hockey attendance are from the WCHA – UND, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado College, Duluth, Denver and Nebraska-Omaha.

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald