If the Xcel Energy Center is the Cathedral for hockey nuts in Minnesota, Mariucci Arena is the frat house. It’s not that it’s any louder or more rowdy; it’s just that there are more people that have been in college after seven years at Mariucci.
With a capacity of 10,000, significantly lower than its counterpart in St. Paul (18,000 plus standing room), Mariucci still feels cavernous when empty and has an electric energy come game time.
On a national scale, college hockey doesn’t hold a candle to football or basketball, but on Fourth Street there is no lack of passion for the game. Let it be known: there are many people that live and breathe Gopher hockey.
The Golden Gophers have outlasted the North Stars and both incarnations of the Fighting Saints in the great white north and the program, which began in the 1920s, did not become antiquated when the Wild came to town at the turn of the century.
When it comes to entertainment, the Wild are The Hangover or Anchorman, a popular mainstream film. The Gophers are more Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski, a cult classic. Not everyone in Minnesota backs U of M hockey: North Dakota, Bemidji State and Minnesota-Duluth have a big-time rivalry up north, Minnesota State has a good following down south and St. Cloud has a love-‘em or hate-‘em appeal out west. However, for people without ties to any of those schools, the Gophers are typically the team of choice.
Erected in 1993, around the time that Norm Green took the North Stars to Dallas, Mariucci stands as a pillar of stability for hockey in Minnesota. The big show might be in neighboring St. Paul, but the Golden Gophers are a hot ticket in the State of Hockey nonetheless.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The University of Minnesota does not slip a hand in your pocket as soon as you get in the food line. Most typical stadium items-hot dogs, hamburgers, brats-are in the $3.50 to $5.00 range and are offered at the Snack Shack. No alcohol is served at Mariucci on game day, but the arena does offer Coke products.
In addition to the Snack Shack, there are also individual stands for drinks, pretzels, ice cream and the like. Dino's Gyros, Domino's Pizza, Famous Dave's BBQ and Maui Wowi are all offered at the stadium as well.
Items like Dino's and Famous Dave's are a bit more expensive, in the $5 to $7 range. If you're not feeling a taste for a burger or brat, I suggest Dino's. The chain is unique to Minnesota and offers some of the best gyros you'll ever have. They're a bit on the expensive side, $6.75, but the stands have shorter lines and, remember, that's about what you'll spend on a beer at a professional game.
The U of M Marching band circles around the arena at the beginning of the game, playing the university fight song. Once the game begins, they are placed prominently behind the net and play during breaks in the game. In fact, the speaker system at the arena, which is impressive, is hardly used throughout the contest. It's a nice touch. Popular music can become trite, and gives Mariucci a unique "college" feel that you won't find at a professional game.
Before the game, Goldie the Gopher will stand in front of the band, drop his gloves, flex his pipes and spin his head around a la Paranormal Activity. It is one of my favorite rituals in all of college hockey. It is a great representation of hockey fans in Minnesota-like a gopher mascot, we look cute and cuddly all dressed up in our scarves and winter coats, but once the game starts something comes loose in our head and we become awful aggressive.
The lower bowl is divided into 24 sections, clearly marked by giant banners hanging above each area. All of the seats are maroon except behind the penalty boxes, where a gold M is formed. There is a club section that offers both stadium seating and an area with circular tables. The box seating is simple: a television and stadium seating with a couple tables and chairs behind it.
The banners above the arena indicate the program has a culture of winning. This team has won in the WIHL and WCHA as well as the AAU and NCAA. There is also a banner hung with the only number the Gophers have retired, John Mayasich's No. 8, and pictures from the teams of the past and present are plastered on the walls around the arena. There are also plaques for individual teams in the corridors, indicating that this program takes their history very seriously.
Whether it is the tunes of the pep band, the screams of the student section or the players in bumblebee uniforms on the walls of the building, there is something for everyone to like inside Mariucci Arena.
Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and many other Big 10 universities, the University of Minnesota is not located someplace where the school can dominate its city. This is not a situation like Madison, Columbus or Ann Arbor where the school is the main attraction-Gopher hockey is located in the Twin Cities.
There is plenty to do for people of all ages in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but the entertainment around Mariucci is catered to the college crowd. This isn't a bad thing in the sense that it gives the area the arena is in an "on-campus feel." Not only is Mariucci located next to Williams Arena (basketball), TCF Bank Stadium (football) and the Baseline Tennis Center, but it is also in close proximity to student apartments, "college kid food" (Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy John's, McDonald's) and The Library (and by that I mean the eponymous student bar).
So while the U of M may not have a city to call its own, there is a little section of Minneapolis, appropriately named Dinkytown, which is carved out specifically for college students.
The problem is that for older fans that have put their college years behind them, they have to go into downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul to find a restaurant where orders are not made with numbers and bars that offer more than Miller Lite and Budweiser. In short, the arena is made for the students, but welcoming to the general public.
Transcribed above the main entrance is longtime Gopher coach John Mariucci's famous saying, "Through these gates walk the greatest fans in college hockey" and the fans live up to the billing.
The chants from the student section are classic.
Before the game, they channel their inner Foghorn Leghorn and sing, "[Opposing goalie name] is a great big sieve, a great big sieve. [Name] is a great big sieve-he lets the puck go by. He let's the puck go by. [Name] is great big sieve-he lets the puck go by. You suck!" to the tune of Camptown Races.
When a penalized Minnesota player exits the sin bin, the PA announcer will say, "Gophers at full strength!" to which the students reply, "Always were! Always will be!"
Better yet, when the one-minute mark is announced, not only do the students thank the announcer (this is Minnesota, of course), but the PA man responds, "You're welcome."
It's not all warm and fuzzy inside Mariucci, however. Any time an opponent from Minnesota comes to Minneapolis, students chant, "Go-pher re-jects!"
Everyone in the arena understands the game. There are instant cheers when a puck is cleared during the penalty kill and oxygen depriving gasps when an opponent fires a puck across the crease. It is as though the audience is hard-wired to the players they are watching-responding instantly to a large hit, a sleek dangle or a monster slap shot.
There may only be 10,000 of them, but Gopher fans make their presence known.
It's pretty easy to get to Mariucci Arena. It is located right off of 35W, a major freeway in Minnesota that is used by many commuters to get to Minneapolis from the northern or southern suburbs. For people in the west or east, all they have to do is hop on I-94 and take it to 35W. For out of towners, I-35, which runs from Duluth, Minn. to San Antonio, Tex., splits into 35E (St. Paul) and 35W (Minneapolis). Get off on Exit 18 and head left and you can't miss it.
There is a lot of parking nearby. I suggest the 4th Avenue ramp. It is walking distance from the arena and only $10 on game day.
Gopher hockey tickets are a bit expensive, but worth the cost.
The most popular games are $55 at the cheapest, with $40 for standing room only. Less popular games run in the $30-$35 range. Season ticket holders typically pay $75 per game. If you really want a good seat, a popular game can cost you upwards of $400.
Having said that, once you're in it's not that expensive. Parking is not hard to find and is about $10 at most of the nearby ramps. Food isn't outrageous...especially for a sporting event. Also, because of the arena's proximity to the Twin Cities, you can eat out beforehand and avoid concession lines.
Mariucci has a new jumbotron for the 2012-13 season. It has four large, high-definition displays that offer incredible introductory and in-game videos. There is a pre-game video of former players talking about what the Gopher program meant to them, highlights from teams in the past and present and individual player and in-game information displayed throughout the contest.
It definitely is a great addition to the arena.
During the renovation, the university also added a fascia display that provides information on out-of-town scores and additional in-game statistics.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the arena, however, is that the ice is Olympic sized. This is the way hockey should be played. Skill players are better able to skate around defenders, there is less dump-and-chase and a player with great hockey vision will make sublime passes that you'll never see in a typical arena.
Unfortunately, because of the dasher boards, hockey games hold less people than basketball to begin with and then, by expanding the rink, teams will lose even more expensive seats near the glass, but the larger dimensions (210'98 versus 200'85) make the game a lot more exciting.
That, in and of itself, makes Mariucci a must-see for a die-hard hockey fan.
When people think of "must-see" sports venues, Jerry Jones World out in Dallas and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx immediately come to mind. I'm biased, of course, but I feel that Gopher hockey should be mentioned alongside Cowboy football and Yankee baseball as a must see for every sports nut.
The thing I like about it is that you have to be there to understand it. There is no description that will instantly sell Mariucci Arena to someone from out of town: It's not that big (there are larger college hockey venues), it's not located in a quaint college town and there is no gimmick like a pirate ship like at Raymond James Stadium or giant slide like in Miller Park. It's not located in a large city. The Gophers aren't perennial champions (last National Championship: 2003). There is no religious affiliation like Notre Dame.
You can't use the old "Hockey is religion in Minnesota" cliché, because while there's some truth to that, the Xcel Energy Center serves as the unofficial place of worship for puckheads in Minnesota.
It's better described as a party. Everyone has their favorite bar, or in college maybe their favorite house party, that they know they can bring anyone to and ensure that they'll have a good time. That's Gopher hockey. Sure its appeal may look esoteric in nature-it's designed for hockey fans in Minnesota-but there's an undeniable truth about this place:
As soon as you set foot in there, you'll fall in love with the game of hockey.
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