So if you're interested, check it out after the jump. It was a fun night.
By Jonathan Yardley
There had been signs, of course.
Literal ones – Winnipeg listed as the next notable destination on the interstate. Subtler ones – the rows of SUVs shimmering with a thin layer of ice and windswept snow.
Loud ones – thousands of students chanting the time-honored, “Sieve! Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!” to a beaten goaltender. Silent ones – the man to my right standing and miming a referee signaling a goal while waiting for a replay verdict.
|North Dakota's student section, packed and standing.|
Colorful ones – the seemingly endless variety of green and black jerseys worn by locals from age 2 to age 90. Aromatic ones – the distinctive smell of butter wafting through the concession line.
Yes, I knew it was hockey country. But the deal was sealed when the cheerleaders (unusual enough at a hockey game) took to the ice between periods to skate a carefully choreographed routine. Skating experience one of the requirements to make the cheerleading squad? Only in hockey country.
I drove to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to see for myself. I had heard of the lavish Ralph Engelstad Arena and the controversy surrounding the now-banned nickname of the University of North Dakota’s athletic teams, and I was intrigued by it. Yet I never expected, nor had any reason to be there in person. But with a free Saturday night in Fargo, the chance to see this hockey shrine - just a simple 87-mile drive away - was too good to pass up. After all, when am I ever going to be in North Dakota again?
I cannot say I found definitive answers. I did no official interviews, conducted no polls, and did not broach these topics with administrators. Instead I looked on, curiously, taking in this utter focus on and devotion to hockey, a passion shared mainly with a neighboring country and just a few other states. I absorbed the hushed murmur of the fans when action was slow, the collective groan at an ill-advised pass, the steady applause of a penalty-kill clearance, and, above all, the instant crescendo of a skillful stickhandle or scoring chance as it materialized, seemingly out of nothing.
|A sellout crowd of 11,899 packed 'The Ralph.'|
The nickname’s elimination appears on its way to permanence (though some are petitioning for another referendum in 2014). The futures of the Sioux nickname and logos inside ‘The Ralph,’ as the arena is known, remain up in the air. But even without a nickname, these fans are anything but rudderless. They know who they are, and they are proud of it:
This is hockey country.