'It's a game-changer': Record $75 million gift makes on-campus St. Thomas hockey, hoops facility a reality
The largest gift ever given to a Minnesota university means the new 4,000-seat Lee and Penny Anderson Arena will likely open on the St. Thomas campus in time for the 2025-26 college hockey season.
ST. PAUL — Before the men’s and women’s teams at the University of St. Thomas begin setting records on the ice, a Minnesota couple’s record-setting generosity will mean a state-of-the-art home for Tommies hockey in the not-too-distant future.
On Tuesday, Jan. 17, the St. Paul-based Catholic school announced an incredible $75 million gift from Lee and Penny Anderson will be the cornerstone funding for their new on-campus arena, which they hope will be the home to Tommies hockey by the fall of 2025.
According to St. Thomas President Rob Vischer, the facility represents another step in the school’s greater mission to transition from being a “small Catholic liberal arts college to being a comprehensive nationally-known Catholic university” which included the opening of a Minneapolis campus in the 1990s.
“This is like a shot of jet fuel on that journey, to get this arena going and to become a meaningful national presence in hockey and basketball,” said Vischer, in an interview with The Rink Live.
Lee and Penny Anderson Arena will have hockey seating for 4,000 and will be built on the school’s St. Paul campus, near the corner of Cretin and Grand avenues. It will serve as the home for not only men’s and women’s hockey, but for men’s and women’s basketball as well, and will include hockey and basketball practice facilities.
The second ice sheet will be used for hockey practice while the arena is in its basketball configuration, but also provides an opportunity for the college to partner with youth and high school programs in St. Paul.
The plan involves the demolition of three current structures — a gymnasium, a service center and a residence hall — that were classified as "low use" buildings by school officials.
The money from the Andersons is the largest monetary gift ever given to a Minnesota university. Their plan is to break ground in the spring of 2024 if fundraising goals are met. St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten noted that the entire fundraising goal is $131 million for a facility that is projected to cost $175 million, and the Andersons’ gift gets them more than halfway to their fundraising goal.
“So we’ve got a little bit of work to do, and this launches our fundraising campaign, really,” Esten said. The major gift and the renderings of the building were revealed at an on-campus event on Tuesday morning, with a large number of alumni and representatives from all four sports tenants on hand.
Minnesota-based Ryan Construction plans to build the facility. Esten and others from the school have been doing their homework, visiting other facilities throughout the college sports world, cognizant of finding a design that works for both hockey and basketball. He noted schools like Boston College, Omaha, Wisconsin, Arizona State and Ohio State that have multipurpose facilities used for hockey and other sports.
“As we’ve looked around the country, we’re really looking to see if there are lessons learned with some of these facilities, particularly as we look at conversions, moving from hockey to basketball and basketball to hockey,” Esten said.
Prior to taking over as the athletic director at his alma mater, Esten worked at Penn State. It was noted that the renderings of the hockey setup for the new Tommies home rink bear some resemblance to Pegula Ice Arena, especially with a steeply-pitched student section behind the rink where the visiting goalie sits for two periods.
"I can't even tell you how happy we will be with that," Tommies men's hockey coach Rico Blasi said. The Tommies dropped a pair of close games at Penn State earlier this season. "Playing in that arena this year, the student section was a lot of fun. Our guys really liked that and there was a lot of energy in the building for both teams. It's what college athletics is really all about."
Lee Anderson, 83, is a Minneapolis native and the former chairman and CEO of Twin Cities-based API Group, which encompasses several construction companies. Known for their philanthropy, the Andersons previously gave $60 million to St. Thomas in 2005. The student recreation complex there has their name on it, as does the $6 million rugby facility at West Point, where Lee Anderson graduated in 1961. He and Penny have been recognized as some of the most generous donors to the U.S. Military Academy, as well as giving to many veterans support efforts.
"The transition to Division I has been unfolding over the last couple of years and they've been very attuned to what that's going to take," Vischer said. "As plans began to coalesce around an on-campus arena and we started getting a sense of the magnitude of the project, we gave them an opportunity to participate and they jumped in with enthusiasm."
The Tommies men’s hockey program is in the CCHA, while the women are in their second season in the WCHA. The Tommies basketball programs compete in the Summit League.
Joel Johnson, head coach of Tommies women's hockey, joked that his biggest challenge last week was not only preparing for a series versus the Minnesota Gophers, but also keeping the forthcoming arena announcement a secret.
"It's a game-changer," Johnson said. "We're fortunate to play in some of the best places in the country ... and with the renderings I've seen of this place, it's going to put us at the top."