By Jess Myers
(Editor’s note: Over the last 70 years, the Minnesota Gophers have had only two permanent hockey homes. In this three-part series, The Rink Live is taking a look at the past, present and future of the Gophers’ home rinks. In Part One, we look back at the original Williams/Mariucci Arena, which remains a special place in the program’s lore more than 25 years after the final hockey game played there.)
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Gophers will be coming off a tough road series at Notre Dame on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, and prepping for another challenging road trip to Penn State.
They often have Mondays off late in the season, but here’s hoping that Gophers men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko gets the team together that day and takes them across the street from their home rink to Maturi Pavilion, the home of the Gophers gymnastics, wrestling and volleyball programs. A friendly game of floor hockey on the court would be appropriate.
That particular Monday will mark 70 years, to the day, that what’s now known as Maturi Pavilion, opened as the Gopher hockey program’s first permanent on-campus home. At the time, the U of M fieldhouse was remodeled and renamed Williams Arena, after the man who had coached Gopher football in the first two decades of the 20th century.
The east side of the long brick building now known as “The Barn” was, and is, the Gopher basketball programs’ home court. The building’s west end was creatively configured to accommodate a hockey rink with seating for around 7,000 on both sides.
Cabbing to the crease
Prior to getting their on-campus home, the Gophers were a nomadic bunch. Their official home rink was the Minneapolis Arena at 2900 Dupont Avenue South, on the site of what today is the Cub Foods in Uptown.
“It was in the only rink in Minneapolis at the time. We played and practiced there and we had our own locker room. We’d ride taxi cabs there and back from Cooke Hall,” said Rube Bjorkman, a Gophers forward in 1950. “Later we had something pretty comparable to a high school bus and coach Doc Romnes would drive us out there.
“It was not a convenient situation because that was a pretty decent haul from the school out there and back. But back then, most but not all of the players, had come from outdoor rinks someplace. There weren’t many indoor rinks anywhere at the time.”
Bjorkman, 90, lives in Warroad and retired in 1978 after stints as the head coach at RPI, New Hampshire and North Dakota.
Clashing on campus
The Gophers played additional “home” games at the St. Paul Auditorium and in Rochester, Minn. Early in the 1949-50 season, on Friday, Feb. 17, 1950, the Gophers welcomed Michigan State to their new on-campus home, and played the role of inhospitable host, dispatching the Spartans, 12-1.
It was the first of 549 games the Gophers would win there over the next 43 years. The last of them was on March 13, 1993, when they beat North Dakota in overtime to win a WCHA playoff series, giving the program a .714 winning percentage in Williams Arena (the hockey side of the building was renamed Mariucci Arena in 1985). The building would host the NCAA Frozen Four in 1958 and again in 1966, when Michigan State had a much better time in Minneapolis, beating Clarkson for the Spartans’ first NCAA title.
“It was a classic. Just a tremendous place, and the ice was always great,” said Lou Nanne, the Gophers’ captain in 1963 and a defenseman. “The fans’ proximity to the ice made it really good for the home team, and for defensemen there was more room behind the net than I’ve ever seen. It was like an extra playground where you could do a lot more things with the puck in all that room.”
The discomforts of home
If it was roomy on the ice, and a great place for the players, it was often less so for the 7,000-plus spectators that crammed their way into the rink on countless cold winter nights.
There was only bench seating inside, and the last few rows in the three seating areas (a lower tier on each side of the ice, and an overhanging upper deck on the north side) had views obstructed by the arena’s rafters. The rise of the bleachers was very gradual, so that if someone five rows in front of you stood up, you would need to stand up to see over them, leading to considerable sitting then standing, then sitting again, during the course of a game.
The narrow concourses on both sides of the rink were packed between periods, with long lines for the restrooms. High on the walls lining the concourses, tilted down so they were easier to view from below, were rows of black-and-white photos of the program’s NHLers and All-American players.
“What kid in Minnesota didn’t walk through that building in awe,” Motzko said. “They had the photos of all the great players and they were pointed down. They were probably only 8 x 10 but they looked like they were about four feet high. Then crawling around the rafters to find your seat. It was one of the true iconic buildings in college hockey.”
On the south side of the rink, up two flights of stairs, a makeshift pressbox hung from the rafters, which presented its own challenges for the working media, although most look back with nostalgia.
“It was total fun. From a technical standpoint, it might have been a nightmare, but we weren’t really advanced in the broadcasts we were doing back then,” said Frank Mazzoco, who has called Gopher games on TV and radio for the past 30-plus years. “I think about that pressbox sometimes and I wonder how it didn’t collapse. But it was just great theater.”
The locker rooms were one floor below the ice surface, down a long hallway that connected the hockey and basketball sides of the rink. After getting in gear in their cramped locker room quarters, players would have to walk up a flight of wide wooden steps, with skates on, to get to their benches.
The teams were seated on opposite sides of the ice, and both penalty boxes were next to the Gophers’ bench on the north side. That presented a unique home ice advantage for the Gophers, as a player coming out of their penalty box could get to the bench in a second or less, while an opposing player had to skate across the ice to change after leaving the box. Although that proximity to the penalty box wasn’t always good for the Gophers, especially when their coach got angry.
“If you got too many penalties and (John) Mariucci didn’t like it, it wasn’t an advantage. He’d be biting your head off because he was right there,” Nanne said. “So there were two sides to that.”
Change on the horizon
It was a place beloved by the players, and the fans, for all its quirks and creature discomforts. But by the late 1980s, change was coming to college hockey.
In the 1970s, conference rivals like Michigan Tech and North Dakota got new home rinks.
In late 1989 the upstart program at St. Cloud State moved into the National Hockey Center, a 6,000-seat on-campus rink built with $9.5 million of state dollars ($20.6 million today, adjusted for inflation), which gave in-state recruits a tempting new destination to consider. There was abundant talk in Minneapolis that the Gophers’ rink would need a costly new ice-making plant, or the program would need a new home.
From the U of M mens’ hockey program’s potential venue crisis, there arose an opportunity.
In Part Two, a look at the debate over where Gophers hockey should play next, and the effort it took to get the new Mariucci Arena built.