By Jess Myers
(Editor’s note: Over the last 70 years, the Minnesota Gophers have had 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 2, we look at the effort to build a new arena that would take Gophers hockey into the modern era, and the transition from the original Mariucci Arena to their current rink.)
MINNEAPOLIS — If Minnesota Gophers football had found immediate success playing off campus in the 1980s, hockey fans might be traveling to downtown St. Paul to watch the Gophers skaters today, and U of M hoops fans might be picking out season tickets at an arena in downtown Minneapolis.
When the Metrodome opened in 1982, it was primarily home for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and MLB’s Minnesota Twins. But Minnesota Gophers football and baseball came along as secondary tenants. Domed stadiums were all the rage in the era, and the thinking was that Gopher football would return to glory playing in an ultra-modern (for the time) all-weather facility just a few miles from campus.
There were a few flashes of hope in the middle of the decade, when Lou Holtz re-ignited the passion for the program and got the Gophers back to a bowl game before he bolted to Notre Dame, but by the late 1980s, they’d sunk back to mediocrity, and the move off campus was already looking like it may have been a mistake.
Time for some new digs
It was about that time that serious talk was happening about the future of the Gopher hockey program. Williams/Mariucci Arena had been a great home for the team for nearly 40 years. But the building’s myriad of quirks and lack of creature comforts were seemingly less and less charming by the year.
Rick Bay took over as the school’s athletic director for men’s sports in 1988. Although he had been a student-athlete and coach at Michigan, he knew all about the Williams/Mariucci Arena complex, and was not a fan.
“The entire facility was old, cold and decrepit. I know some of the old-timers loved it and thought that it was a competitive advantage for Minnesota for opponents to have to play in that environment, but it was awful,” said Bay, 77, who is retired and splits his time between Michigan and Southern California. “The locker rooms were terrible.
“I had actually competed on the basketball side of the arena when I wrestled at Michigan. I remember being there when it was so cold that none of the wrestlers on either side could break a sweat trying to warm up. It was just awful. When I became athletic director, I knew it was something we had to try to fix.”
Add to that the state legislature appropriating nearly $10 million for a new on-campus rink at St. Cloud State in 1987, and the deteriorating ice plant in Minneapolis that would likely need replacing, and there was plenty of discussion about where the Gophers would play next.
East, or south, to the future?
For some, including then-St. Paul mayor Jim Schaible, the obvious answer was to follow football’s lead and move off campus. Schaible and city fathers from St. Paul, with backing from then-Governor Rudy Perpich, made a pitch to renovate the 15,000-seat St. Paul Civic Center, to make it a permanent home for Gophers hockey.
Others proposed remodeling the State Fair Coliseum specifically for the Gophers. Another plan had the Gophers moving to Bloomington, to play at Met Center, the home of the Minnesota North Stars. The business interests in downtown Minneapolis made a strong pitch to move Gophers basketball to what would become Target Center, then under construction.
Bay would have none of it.
“I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but I thought that would have been the death knell for Gopher athletics,” Bay said. “We were already suffering from having to play football where the Vikings played, because it wasn’t our stadium. I always thought we felt like visitors and we had no football identity on campus. So when people proposed that for hockey and basketball, I spoke out publicly, even disagreeing with the governor.”
Making the money work
Instead, they focused their sights on campus. Chris Voelz had come to the U of M at the same time as Bay, serving as the athletic director for women’s sports. In the hockey side of Williams/Mariucci Arena, she saw the potential to remodel it and give women’s sports like volleyball, basketball and gymnastics a home of their own.
Gordon “Gus” Donhowe, the school’s chief financial officer, came to see a way that renovations of the basketball arena and a new hockey arena could be a sound fiscal move.
“I don’t know how much of a sports fan Gus was, but he was a financial genius, and he bought in to the idea that I presented that maybe we could make these facilities pay for themselves,” Bay said.
The idea was that by being able to sell 3,000 additional seats (at higher prices) for hockey, selling seat licenses for basketball and hockey, plus adding premium seating areas like club rooms and suites to both arenas, they could accrue some debt initially, then generate enough revenue to pay for all of it over time. Donhowe sold the U of M Board of Regents on the idea, and the planning for a new rink began.
Hockey rink homework
Then-coach Doug Woog and his staff did their research, traveling far and wide to look at what were the top-of-the-line rinks of that era to gather ideas. Doug’s son, Steve, recalls that for a time, the basement floor of their family’s home in South St. Paul was covered not with carpet, but with myriad plans, blueprints, architectural schematics and artist’s renderings of potential arena options.
When they formally announced the plans for the new rink, they unveiled a $17.5 million project ($32 million in today’s dollars) to build a 10,000-seat building with one bowl of steeply-pitched seats (with backs and armrests) surrounding an Olympic-size ice sheet, to be open in time for the 1993-94 season.
In an interesting twist, that Gophers season would begin at the new on-campus arena and end at the St. Paul Civic Center, where the Gophers fell to Boston University in the semifinals of the NCAA Frozen Four.
When the rink opened in October of 1993, the new Mariucci Arena featured bricks in part of its interior facade that had been salvaged from the old Memorial Stadium, where Gopher football played prior to 1982, which was a nod to Gopher sports history. It also included some of the audio system that had been used at Memorial Stadium, making the the acoustics an immediate complaint of fans.
Banners above the blue lines
Although they lost the first game there (5-4 to Michigan Tech on October 15, 1993), as so many home teams do on their first night in a new facility, in 26 seasons the Gophers have won 350 home games (a .692 winning percentage), along with nine conference titles and national championships in 2002 and 2003. They’ve had a losing home record there once, going 9-10-3 in the 2010-11 season.
Renamed “3M Arena at Mariucci” in 2017 as part of a long-term corporate partnership agreement, the rink also hosts all of the U of M’s graduation ceremonies and the consolation rounds of the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament each year, as well as serving as the Gophers’ home base.
There is no talk more about moving off campus or the need for a new arena, but with average attendance dropping and college hockey changing, there is a serious discussion of what is needed to make sure the Gophers’ home rink is the right place for them and their fans for the next quarter-century.
In Part 3, a look at the modern 3M Arena at Mariucci after a quarter-century, and what the future may hold for this venue as it houses the next generation of Gophers hockey.