Road Trip: University of Minnesota
Let's ice any debate about the best atmosphere in college hockey right here. It's Mariucci Arena, where the only thing harsher than the Midwestern winter is the reception Golden Gophers opponents must endure
By Adam Duerson
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Hell hath frozen over ...only now they call it the University of Minnesota.
Hell? Between periods of a Dec. 21 home game against New Hampshire -- part deux of the Dodge Holiday Classic and a rematch of last year's national championship game, won by Minnesota -- a preteen Gophers fan leaned over the player walkway to high-five the passing visitors. Cute, eh? Not really. The tyke had loogied in his hand. And when a player declined the handshake? A sloppy wet one to the back of the helmet, of course.
Welcome to Minneapolis!
Later, the same little devil was one of 10,168 Midwesterners (capacity at Mariucci Arena is listed at 10,000) bluntly informing Wildcats goalie Mike Ayers, "You suck, you worthless piece of s---," by chanting it in unison. And during a break in the game, grown-ups made like 12-year-olds at a Hilary Duff sighting when it was announced that free Subway sandwiches would be awarded to the inhabitants of the 17 seats of Section 13, Row 14. That set off a game of no-holds-barred musical chairs featuring forearm shivers and bodychecks every bit as ferocious as those on the ice. "Wait 'til the rowdy students come back [from winter break]," a bystander offered somewhat apologetically, as if let down by the absence of blood.
Of course, we mean hell in the best sense of the word. The same Gophers fans who yell "You suck!" at visiting players are just as quick to give plain old visitors a wave and a polite "Hidey Ho!" They simply live and die with their teams, and the diabolical atmosphere they create serves them well. In addition to hockey national championships in 2002 and '03, they've got a women's volleyball team that made the Final Four last month, a top women's hockey team and a wrestling squad that won NCAA championships in '01 and '02.
As for frozen over, the warming effects of a car's heated seats are nullified in precisely 3.7 seconds by the frigid winter conditions in Minneapolis, where the average low in January is 4°. Fortunately this is exactly the maximum amount of time you ever have to spend outside, thanks to the Gopher Way, an elaborate system of tunnels and skywalks that connect large chunks of the school's East and West Bank campuses.
The day of the New Hampshire game, the plan was to use the Gopher Way to make it to the rink without setting foot outdoors. But after being routed through a hotel, a parking ramp and a molecular biology building by instructions that a local had graciously scrawled on a napkin, an information desk clerk lamented in a dead-on Marge Gunderson voice, "Ohhhh. To get to the game now you're going to have to go outside for a bit there. Yer not really dressed for that now, are ya?" Awww no.
Sure enough, Mariucci lies a block and a half outside the realm of the Gopher Way, necessitating a mad 50-yard dash -- which is actually kind of a nice precursor to the frozen hell you'll find once inside.
Issue date: January 29, 2004