13 December 2012

Essay: This is hockey country

While in North Dakota, I had the chance to take in an amazing atmosphere at a University of North Dakota hockey game. While on an airplane a day and a half later, I took a stab at an essay on the topic. It's not my usual style or subject matter on this blog, but what is a free-lance blog for if not posting stories that you haven't been able to sell to anybody!?

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?

So I was looking for something. First it was a parking spot, then my pass, then the press box, then an open seat in the sold-out venue, and then something to eat. But even after I had found all those things (and after I was rightfully displaced from several seats), I was trying to figure out what made this place, and these welcoming, fanatical, hardy, green-and-black maniacs, tick. What makes them cling to the politically unacceptable “Fighting Sioux” nickname and proudly wear its Indian-head logo on virtually every piece of merchandise available to them?

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.'
I was gradually swept up by all of it, especially the tense frenzy of the third period, with North Dakota clinging to a 4-3 lead. After a backhand off the post and a fruitless power play raised the arena’s collective blood pressure, I watched as captain Danny Kristo loaded up a potent wrist shot, rifled it through traffic, and banked it in off the right post. As he knelt low to pump a fist and the gentleman in front of me in the wheelchair-accessible section sprang to his feet with both arms high in the air, I found my own fist flying upward to join the emphatic release of tension and celebration of the sport.

The nickname is now officially embargoed, on the basis of a state-wide referendum last June that followed sustained pressure by the NCAA. But the crowd still chants, “Sioux!” whenever the PA announcer says, “the University of North Dakota,” and they yell it with such pride and exclamation and openness that it could never be mistaken for a Bronx cheer. Sioux logos continue to be worn and sold on replica jerseys and are visible everywhere, from the banners to the pillars to the concourse.

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.


  1. Great article. I am glad you wrote on this topic, anyone that is the slightest hockey fan needs to experience a game at the Ralph. It really is a unique spectacle

  2. I grew up in East Grand Forks, the town next door and if anyone asks where I grew up I always say Section T Row 17 Seat 8. I turn 46 in a week and I can remember going to games in the late '60s at the old old arena. It was an old quanset hut with chicken wire for glass and plywood covering the corners of the square sheet of ice at the rounded corner of the playing surface. They kept the Zamboni in the lobby of the arena between periods. Then in 72 they moved to Winter Sports Complex. It's still a great building. Saw Wisconsin beat Harvard there in the '83 NCAA Final. Lots of fights. Scott Marvin had blood on his home jersey the entire year in '76 from a scrap. You wouldn't believe how violent college hockey was in the '70s and 80's. Youtube "waterbottle incident"
    Only been to two games in the new place. Saw the ceremony when they hoisted the late Terry Casey's #12 to the ceiling. That was a nice touch. His widow and daughter were there.

  3. I enjoyed this outsider's perspective of UND hockey very much.