“Dad, you won’t believe this. There’s more Bruins stuff here than there is at home.”
I had to call my father; who else would I call when walking into a great shrine of hockey?
‘Here’ was the Mall of America, the bastion of American consumerism lying on the outskirts of the great city of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Naturally, I had to check out every store with sports memorabilia. (There are times when I am glad that I have no money. If I ever did come into money, I’m sure most of it would go to such stores. Who wouldn’t pay $3,000 for an autographed panoramic photo of the 1980 US Olympic Team?)
As one would expect in the state that dubs itself ‘the State of Hockey,’ the game is omnipresent – and it’s hard to walk too far without finding NHL and college hockey apparel.
Like the baseball fan’s trip to Fenway Park, the football fan’s journey to Lambeau Field, the music lover’s visit to Carnegie Hall, and the history buff’s walk through the Freedom Trail, every member of the great church of hockey should make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land that is Minnesota.
When I was around ten years old, I saw Boston University (yeah, them) play against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on TV at Marriucci Arena in Minneapolis. Something about that arena and that game resonated with me, and stuck in my consciousness for years – and the more I read about it and thought about it, the more I decided that I had to get out there for a game. I finally made it this month, as a Gopher men’s game coincided with the Boston College women’s hockey team’s visit to Minnesota.
I’m not really sure what it was that drew me in. Fans at BU’s Agganis Arena and UNH’s Whittemore Center are just as loud, and their stadiums nearly as nice as Mariuicci (sadly, our antiseptic Conte Forum, with its half-empty seating bowl at the drop of the puck, does not make that list).
But there is something about the way people live the game in Minneapolis that makes it different, and makes it special.
Everywhere I went in Minneapolis, I saw people wearing Gophers jackets and sweatshirts. Every store seemed to carry something with the “M” logo on it. The local newspaper provided wall-to-wall coverage of the weekend’s series.
The only real comparison that I can come up with for the love that people have for the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis is the way Boston embraces the Red Sox.
But even that seems like a flawed analogy. The unique thing about the University of Minnesota’s team is that it is composed almost entirely of players from in-state. With so much talent in-state (an estimated 45,000 Minnesotan kids play youth hockey each year), it seems unnecessary to go elsewhere.
As such, the following for the Gophers seems more akin to Italians following their national soccer team.
On the night I went, the Gophers were playing against in-state rival St. Cloud State. Over 10,500 people filled the arena and seemingly all of them were decked out in maroon and gold (I can’t help but love the colors).
It’s quite a feeling to walk into Mariucci Arena for the very first time. The first thing that struck me was just the size of the place. There is one seating bowl, and it is very steep in order to give everyone in attendance a great view of the ice. Because of that incline, the bowl seems massive. If you’ve ever been to BU, picture the Agganis Arena – then add about 4,000 seats and a ring of very impressive luxury boxes.
The walk around the concourse is also jaw-dropping for the first time visitor. Murals, posters, and banners highlighting great moments in Gopher history are all around. One of the greatest trophies in sports, the McNaughton Cup, given annually to the WCHA’s regular season champion, was proudly on display in the trophy case.
The game itself is also a different experience from what we get at home. While I’m proud to say that our student section is just as good if not better than theirs (they are more creative with their chants, but we are louder throughout the game), the way the entire crowd was so involved in the game was such a jolt from the usual emotionless BC crowd. Great saves, great chances, and good plays brought the entire crowd to its feet.
And when the Gophers scored, the arena sprung to life as the fans went into their favorite cheer: “M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A! Minnesota! Minnesota! Yeahhhhhhhhhh……… GOPHERS!”
I’m not impressed by much, since I tend to hold sporting venues to the nearly impossible standard of Fenway Park. But that particular moment was quite impressive.
Living hockey in Minneapolis is not just limited to the Gopher men’s team. The Gopher women’s hockey team has its own beautiful 4500 seat arena. Indoor and outdoor skating rinks are everywhere. And one of the crown jewels of Minnesota sports, the annual High School Hockey tournament, draws over 16,000 fans each year to the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.
So I guess the right analogy is some sort of cross between Texas football, Italian soccer, and Boston baseball. Sound good?
I’m a Boston guy, through and through, and BC is the only place where I could ever see myself. But now that I’ve made my dream visit to Minneapolis a reality, there will always be a place in my heart for the hockey-loving school on the banks of the Mississippi.