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Brad E. Schlossman / Forum News Service, Published July 27 2013

UND's old Ralph in its final days

GRAND FORKS – Rube Bjorkman was in Grand Forks last week and took one last drive by the old Ralph Engelstad Arena.

“It was an awfully good building,” reflected Bjorkman, the University of North Dakota’s head hockey coach when the venue was built in 1972. “It was a big step up for the program. I hate to see it go down.”

The old Ralph Engelstad Arena, originally named the Winter Sports Building, will start to come down at 10 a.m. Monday as UND clears the way for a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility.

The old Ralph Engelstad Arena served as UND’s home for 29 seasons from 1972-2001, watching five national championship teams and 21 All-Americans come through the building.

University and community leaders raised $2 million to fund the arena, including $800,000 in student bonds, $500,000 from the Edmond A. Hughes Estate, $240,000 from alumni and $460,000 from a local fund drive by UND alum John O’Keefe.

“It took a lot of effort from a lot of people to get that thing built,” Bjorkman said. “A lot of people worked together.”

In return, the community was rewarded with a fan-friendly building.

First off, it had heat. The Barn, UND’s previous home, did not. The brutal North Dakota winter temps drove some fans away from the Barn.

Secondly, they reserved half of the arena for students, making it one of the most lively buildings in the country.

The angles of the seats were such that the fans were close to the action, too.

“Even today, I look back on that rink and I think it was the perfect hockey rink for several reasons,” said Virg Foss, who covered UND hockey for the Herald every season the team played in the building. “The sightlines were fantastic, wherever you sat. The noise level would rain down on that rink. I’m sure the players would tell you it was just as loud with 6,000 people in that building as it is with 11,000 people in the new Ralph, just because of the tightness of that rink.”

And the antics of the fans in that arena are often what people recall.

If UND played against rival Minnesota, you could count on a dead gopher being tossed on the ice at some point. If Wisconsin was in town, dead badgers would hit the ice.

The students always led the charge.

They were allowed in for free. In order to ensure they got a seat, they always lined up outside of the old Ralph, no matter how cold it was outside.

“When hockey players and fans see all the students lined up out there, you know you’re going into a true hockey setting,” Foss said. “With 3,000 students every game, the band, the Farce, it was a pretty electric atmosphere. I don’t ever recall that student section not being full. It was always jammed up over there.”

The first goal scored in the building was by the team captain, Earl Anderson. The last official goal scored in the building was by the team captain, Jeff Panzer (the first goal scored at the new Ralph also was by the team captain, Chad Mazurak).

Schlossman writes for the Grand Forks Herald