Home to the St. Cloud State Huskies and Saint John’s University Johnnies (Division III), the National Hockey and Event Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota is undergoing its first reconstruction since it broke ground in 1989.
In its current state, the arena feels charmingly old school, but also a bit outdated. There is no jumbotron, the sound system is more Amplivox than Sony and most of the television and computer monitors use cathode-ray tubes. At times it is nice to experience a hockey game without all of the fancy gimmicks, but it’s also clear that it was time for reconstruction.
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 concession stands offer four choices: the Husky Dog, Pretzel & Nachos, Nachos & Cheese and Buffalo Nachos. The first cost just over $3 and the buffalo nachos are $4.50. Nothing here constitutes a square meal, but with later game times and eateries located nearby, large portions may not be in demand.
NHEC offers Pepsi products for $3 and sports drinks for $4. Alcoholic beverages are not offered at the arena, but according to sources with knowledge of the local party scene at the university, copious amounts of said beverages can be found in bars and student housing near the arena before and after games.
There is also a Domino's Pizza and Famous Dave's BBQ stand in the concourses. Nothing offered is unique or to die for, but given the minimal cost and its proximity to the stands, there is nothing to complain about either.
St. Cloud State offers an old school hockey atmosphere. Aside from the seats, which are Husky red, and the advertisements around the building there is not much color in the arena. The walls are all cement grey and the roof is all steel.
There is a nice standing room section located behind the west goal where fans can watch the game against glass windows near the stadium entrance. Because there is no netting in front of the windows, people pressed against the glass occasionally are surprised by a defected shot that lands a couple inches away from their face.
In addition, all of the seats are on the north and south side of the arena and offer great sightlines to the game. Everyone on the north side sits in an individual seat, where people on peripheries of the upper deck in the south section sit on bleachers.
Two giant scoreboards with Daktronics screens sit above the goals on either side of the arena and two smaller displays with time, scores and period sit above the seating area. The screens are standard definition, but all four boards are easy to read. There are also additional cathode-ray televisions in the concourses, making the place feel a little locked in time.
Once the renovation is complete, there should be high definition screens throughout the building and potentially a revamped scoreboard above each goal. There will also be suite sections on the south side of the arena. At my time of visiting in late 2012, they were incomplete.
The Huskies play a blue-collar, grind-it-out style of hockey and the fans, who offer some chants that are not printable on this site, are a little more hard-bitten than the congenial puckheads in other Minnesotan cities so perhaps the lack of glamour in the arena is fitting for its patrons.
The arena is a long walk (20 minutes) or a short drive from downtown St. Cloud, which has plenty of bars, hotels and restaurants for people from out of town. There are many residential areas for students located near one another along the main drag, meaning students can get a bit rowdy on game nights.
If you are of age to attend college parties, St. Cloud State offers an amazing pre-game, post-game atmosphere. For anyone of drinking age, the bars also offer a fun environment that is a little less rowdy than the average house party. Fortunately for visitors that want to get a good night's sleep, the student housing is far enough from downtown that a good night's sleep can be had.
Known as the Dog Pound, the St. Cloud State student section is one of the loudest in college hockey. During the visiting player introductions, they chant "Sieve! Sieve! Sieve! Who is he? He's a sieve!" while tomahawk chopping at the opposing netminder. At various points during the game you will hear the students howl "Hus-ky Na-tion." During a power play while the team is passing the puck back and forth, they will impatiently chant "Shots! Shots! Shots! Everybody! Shots! Shots! Shots!"-parroting LFMAO's hit song.
Although some of their rehearsed crooning is unprintable and would corrupt innocent ears, there is a charming tradition at NHEC. During the second period, the student body sings Sweet Caroline while participating in synchronized movements that reflect the lyrics of the song.
The general admission areas had patches, but the people that showed up were rather loud. St. Cloud State markets their hockey team as the city's team, meaning that while many of the students wear Husky swag to games, it's more common to see Minnesota attire-Wild, Vikings, Twins and even North Stars-in the stands. The student section is more engaged throughout the contest, but at pivotal moments in the action there are prompt reactions from the crowd and the place is electric after a Husky goal.
While there is a passionate hockey following throughout Minnesota, St. Cloud offers a brasher, more caustic breed of fan.
For starters, the St. Cloud State campus is a little ways away from the main freeway, I-94, that outsiders would use to get to the university. There are multiple ways to get to the arena or downtown areas, but many of them require a decent amount of time on 40 or even 30 MPH roads that feel longer than they really are.
The campus itself is longer than it is wide. It is not difficult to get to the arena by car, but a wrong turn here or there could leave you feeling like you are in the middle of nowhere. Worse yet, if you get going the wrong way on Highway 10, an alternative route to the university, you could end up outside one of the state's largest penitentiaries, the entrance of which brings to mind The Shawshank Redemption.
It is not hard to find your way around St. Cloud if you stay on the main roads, but for a first time visitor, getting to the arena can be a bit of a trick.
An average ticket for a Huskies game is around $15-$30, parking is free and food is cheap, meaning that you get what you pay for at the National Hockey and Events Center.
There are no massive jumbotron, elaborate club sections or exotic food in the arena. At the same time, there is an old-school hockey feel even though the place itself is not that old. In short, if you're a fan of the game, you'll enjoy your experience. If not you probably will not.
It is important to note that I visited NHEC at a time when it was undergoing reconstruction. Because it is a publicly owned building-its main tenant is St. Cloud State, but the facility is rented out to other organizations, most notably, St. John's University-the builders must have the money in hand before they begin adding anything on. This means that the reconstruction will happen in multiple phases.
At the current time, there are not many extras offered.
In time, however, the university expects to add a four-story atrium entrance, suites on both ends of the arena and eventually expand the area behind both nets to accommodate more general, suite and standing room only seating.
Construction began following the 2011-12 hockey season and will continue as long as the school gets the funding they need. Phase One is expected to cost around $30 million and dramatically improve the facility, but it could span across a couple of years. It is possible that a person could visit NHEC once a year for the next couple of years and have a dramatically different experience each time.
The ultimate goal is to have the facility not only be a top-notch hockey arena, but also home to concerts and various other events that draw from people from every demographic. The hope is that it becomes a central gathering place for all of St. Cloud's residents and by casting a large net the facility, in turn, draws more people for hockey games on a return visit.
The vision is there. It just comes down to how long it will take to get there.
At the beginning of the game I was handed a sheet of paper. It is common for members of the media, even if they are not covering the actual happenings of that night's contest, to get a handout with so many numbers on it you'd think you were being prepared to enter the Matrix.
Instead, the handout it was photocopied from a sheet that had twelve handwritten numbers on it that indicated which players were starting for each team and the name of the four game officials.
There were no player stats. There were no team records. The handout wasn't even computer generated!
In fact, the monitors in the press box were longer than they were wide and offered only orange lettering on a black screen. They looked like they were from, well, the early '90s.
That sheet of paper was St. Cloud State hockey in a nutshell:
Nothing fancy, but it got the job done.
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