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Official Review by Tom Schreier, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Erected in 2010, the building of the Sanford Center coincided with Bemidji State’s move from College Hockey America to the Western Collegiate Hockey League. Originally a Division II program, BSU joined the Division I ranks after the NCAA cut Division II hockey due to lack of membership.
While participation in Division I hockey brought increased visibility to the program, travel to locations like Huntsville, Ala., Western New York and Pennsylvania became a concern. By joining the WCHA, the team formed organic rivalries with the University of North Dakota and University of Minnesota-Duluth due to their proximity to both schools as fans from UND and UMD often make the two-hour trip to the arena.
Additionally, BSU has also retained a rivalry with Alabama-Huntsville, dating back to the Division II days, and it is not uncommon for the University of Minnesota to bring flocks of fans—even though it is a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Bemidji.
With six Division II championships, three CHA conference championships and one Frozen Four appearance, and four rivalries to boot, Bemidji State has achieved an incredible amount of interest in just two decades at the Division I level.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Nicknamed The Clinic, the Sanford Center offers the food you would expect at a sporting event. Individual hot dogs and brats are in the $4 range, with baskets of food that include fries going for $7. Coke products are served at $3.25 for a regular and $4.25 for a souvenir glass. The food comes in large portions and the burger I had tasted as good as any standard burger offered at any other sporting events I've attended across the country.
The Sanford Center offers alcoholic beverages, with Miller and Coors on tap on the main concourse and hard alcohol at the club level.
Concessions are easy to find. There are three stations on the lower level and a giant station in the club level. Suites and club seats are also catered at an additional cost.
Selection is the only downside. While there is a taco stand and a place where meat is carved below hot lamps directly in front of you, it is hard to find a lot of variety at the arena when it comes to meals. Having said that, if you are looking for a good burger or hot dog, it can easily be found throughout the building.
You will not find a bad seat at Sanford Center.
With a capacity just north of 4,000, it is an intimate hockey atmosphere that brings everyone close to the action. It is not so small that you feel that you are at a high school event, but is also not so large that you'd have to carry a facial tissue with you if you get a standard ticket at the window.
Formerly the Bemidji Regional Events Center, the arena is owned by the city. Although concerts, rodeo and wrestling matches have all taken places at Sanford, the school's hockey team is the main tenant of the arena. Therefore, all sightlines were designed with hockey in mind.
While most of the wall space in the arena is dedicated to advertising, the history of the Bemidji State hockey program can be found on four touch screens on the west side of the arena. Additionally, various banners and retired numbers hang from the rafters or are placed on the wall opposite the club level seating. The team also honors players that have gone on to play in the Olympics and there is a banner dedicated to former coach Bob Peters, who held his position from 1967-2001.
People describe Bemidji as a "quaint little town," or "a place locked in time" and the small housing and old-time, locally owned buildings in the area give credence to that notion.
Bemidji is best described as peaceful, however. The city is located on an eponymous lake, a body of water that according to legend was formed by the foot of Paul Bunyan. There is a public beach near campus that has ample parking and has a wooded area for someone that wants to enjoy the lakefront under the veil of privacy.
Various locally owned places offer food in the area. I ordered the Paul at Paul Bunyan's Subs on the south side of campus. I couldn't bring myself to eat Babe-given the ox's complexion, he's probably been sick for some time. I highly recommend the sandwich. It should be noted that once you get north of campus most of the restaurants are chains, so if you want to eat at a place unique to Bemidji, you have to stay on the south side.
The campus itself is intimate and quiet. A five-minute drive is all you need to tour the school, as all of the buildings are walking distance from one another. I found it hilarious that almost all of structures are named after something a beaver would chew on-Walnut Hall, Birch Hall, Oak Hall, Cedar Apartments, Electrical Gear Switch Building, et cetera.
Students arrived in droves and were as loud as any you would hear in college hockey. Every big hit, near goal or exciting play merited noise from the crowd. The only thing lacking were unique chants-almost everything the crowd chanted has been repeated in arenas from Mankato, Minn. to Chestnut Hill, Mass.
The locals that showed up were decked out in green and remained engaged throughout the contest. It was charming to see children dancing alongside the BSU Dance Team and adults singing along with the fight song.
Unfortunately, there were large patches in the lower bowl where seats were unoccupied. It is hard to hold this against the fans, as filling an arena of 4,300 people would require more than a third of Bemidji's population (13,431) and a significant amount of the school's 5,000 students to attend the game.
The Sanford Center is not located on campus-it is approximately three miles away. This is not a large burden, as there is a bus service offered to students on campus and to locals at various pubs around the area. For those that choose to drive, it takes about five minutes to get to the arena and there is ample free parking space.
On a larger scale, however, Bemidji is a long trip for visitors. Save for Grand Forks, ND and Duluth, Minn., which are located two hours away, almost everyone else has a decent drive to get to the city. Highways 94 and 10 will get you part of the way from the Twin Cities to Bemidji, but a decent amount of the trip is spent on either MN-64 or MN-200. Both are two-lane highways with a 55 MPH speed limit that slow down near major cities.
In short, St. Cloud, Mankato and even Duluth are easier to get to than Bemidji.
Tickets range from $20 to $35 for individual game tickets and $345 for season ticket holders ($295 for the Family Section). Food is reasonably priced meaning, in general, you're getting a pretty good experience for what you pay for. For a rivalry game, the arena is likely to be packed and still you can sit anywhere and get a good view of the game.
There are no gimmicks at the arena, but everything is new and well designed for any hockey fan that wants to enjoy a game.
Paul Bunyan is very prevalent in Bemidji. To get to campus from the south, you have to take Paul Bunyan Road and cross Paul Bunyan Bridge. Paul Bunyan Communications offers cable, phone and Internet to the locals and advertises heavily in the city. As I alluded to earlier, Paul Bunyan Subs offers quality food and, of course, if you want to worship Paul and his blue ox, there's a statue in the middle of the city.
Aside from that, everything at Bemidji State is pleasantly understated. The stadium has a massive jumbotron with four screens, but even the introduction and player profile videos are done in a manner that is not flashy. Before the game, the crowd is treated to a montage of highlight plays from the season that appears to be Instagrammed with a green tint. When each player is introduced they are shown standing alone in front of their locker.
There is nothing inside or outside of the arena that is incredibly overwhelming, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
During my freshman year at Santa Clara I met a girl named Diana. Upon hearing that I was from Minnesota, she told me that she had visited Bemidji while on retreat. I laughed and told the New Yorker that I was from a city with freeways and buildings and all that good stuff.
It makes perfect sense that a retreat would be held in Bemidji. It is calm and peaceful here. The neighborhood is quiet, the people are friendly, and there is a lot of natural beauty-the lake, massive trees and acres of green farmland.
In fact, for a hockey fan trying to get away from life's madness and just enjoy the game, this is a wonderful place to visit.
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600 Paul Bunyan Dr SE
Bemidji, MN 56601
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