Posted: Fri December 14, 2012 11:27AM; Updated: Fri December 14, 2012 2:10PM

The land of the Sioux: Discovering beauty of hockey in North Dakota

By Peter Richmond, Special to SI.com

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The University of North Dakota's home arena, known as The Ralph, is the Taj Mahal Hall of hockey venues.
The University of North Dakota's home arena, known as The Ralph, is the Taj Mahal Hall of hockey venues.
AP

What kind of idiot would wait until game day to book a hotel room on a road trip to Grand Forks, N.D., on a winter Saturday night? An idiot from a blue state who'd always thought that college hockey was played in tournaments with cute little names like Beanpot. An East Coast-centric fan in search of the best hockey being played during Bettman's Follies who figured that if it was being played in a town in the state that time forgot, there would be an empty bed somewhere. This is, after all, the third-largest city in a state whose entire population is fewer than San Antonio.

"Sorry, we're full," the guy on the phone from Motel 6 or 8 or 11 said as I drove into town after the drive up from Minneapolis. I'd already tried all the chains I'd heard of, and some I hadn't, like the "C'mon Inn" whose front desk guy gave me the bad news: There was no room to come on into.

"Got any recommendations?" I said, trying to keep the tone of desperation out of my voice.

"Not really, I mean, y'know ... hockey," he said, as if I were probably from an alien star system whose ignorance of the local seasonal mania deserved the benefit of the doubt. Then he said, "Good Luck," in the tone they call North Dakota Nice. He wasn't making fun of how stupid I'd been to not anticipate that, in a state with no professional sports teams, and one spectacular college team in a league whose teams only play on weekends (What is that about? What, the athletes go to classes during the week?), playing in the most beautiful hockey arena in the world, every hotel room in town would have been booked a year in advance.

Here's the thing: I'd been lulled by the signs bordering the interstate during my drive north. One advertised WeDoCows.com, which back East would conjure salacious thoughts, but out here means they sell the entire bovine-care catalogue. Another one urged hunters to recycle their deer skins. I passed through Otter Tail County. And a town called Downer.

At one point, when I clicked on the "Check In" app on Facebook which picks up whatever is in your surrounding area, to identify my location for my wife back home on Earth, (usual stuff: "The Inland Seas Maritime Museum;" "Nan's Nails 'n Things") the smart-phone answer came up, "Sorry, we couldn't find any places nearby." I think that that meant I was technically in another dimension.

So can you blame me? For mistaking the American Outback for The Heart of Puckness? For mistaking population density for hockey density?

I finally scored a reservation in a motel in a freight railroad town 40 miles north of Grand Forks before pulling into the lot in front of the glistening arena, which, after all that emptiness and darkness, sort of resembled the spaceship finally coming in to hover in Close Encounters, where I was immediately sucked into gravitational pull of 11,000 people wearing green and white jerseys, parkas and hoodies, heading for one of the highlight events of, well, their entire year.

I was lifted by their buoyancy. I was in need of a fix. I needed to see gentlemanly fights and bending boards. I needed to hear the scrape of a sharp blade kicking up shards of ice, like a straight razor in the hands of a master barber sweeping across a throat: suggesting mayhem, delivering sporting perfection.

I so needed to see kick-saves.

So I passed into the gleaming home of the (formerly) Fighting Sioux: The Ralph: the site of the greatest show, I'd been led to believe, that a hockey junkie could find.

I had not been misled.

*****

They call it Grand Forks because the Red River meets the Red Lake River here, 145 miles south of Winnipeg and a million miles from earth. But no Grand Forks folk would ever admit to having seen any grandiosity up here other than the occasional flooding -- until the Ralph arose in the north side of the campus just over a decade ago: more than a quarter-billion to build a decade ago: The Taj Mahal of hockey.

The Ralph is named for the late Ralph Engelstad, the University of North Dakota grad who became a casino mogul and decided that the faceless 30-year-old arena a few blocks to the south was a poor home for a spectacular program. And every square inch of it glistens.

In the carpeted locker room complex (off limits to all but the players and coaches; we media would soil it by their slovenly presence), the patch of artificial ice in the enormous weight room glistens. The equally off-limits "NHL" wall glistens with the names of the UND grads (see Toews, Jonathan, and the Blackhawk Stanley Cup of 2010). The players' kitchen glistens.

Upstairs, the two gilt-framed mirrors in the arena lobby embossed with silhouettes of Ralph glisten. The teeth of the smiling girls manning the gift shop glisten -- especially because now that the NCAA has officially outlawed the revered Fighting Sioux symbol, and forbidden further manufacture of merchandise with the traditional logo. Thus, on any given home game night this season the gift shop has the feel of a blood-in-the-water feeding frenzy. (My souvenir hoodie sweatshirt was pricey, but the warrior symbol makes it ... well, priceless.)

Most glisteny of all is the enormous inlaid Fighting Sioux portrait in the floor as soon as you step inside. It will remain. The NCAA isn't going to be Nazi-ish about this purge: if an emblem can't be erased without gouging the walls of the palace, they're going to let noble warriors lie. Ralph threatened to stop construction back in the day if the NCAA threatened to make his warrior a violation, but after he died, the change was inevitable. No one liked it, but in the face of the NCAA fining the university prohibitively, after a local Sioux tribe refused to endorse the name, a state referendum voted the warrior out.

As far as the university was concerned, it was best not to cause a ruckus. Not in the land of North Dakota Nice. Not in a town where my swiped credit card produced a "See Attendant" prompt at a gas pump, wherein the guy inside explained that I had to pump before I came inside to pay.

"That's backwards," I said. "Couldn't people fill their tanks and then just drive away?"

"I guess so," he said. Then he said. "It hasn't ever happened, though."

*****

On this night, early into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association season, the Fighting Sioux were ranked sixth nationally, but they were underachieving at 4-3-1. Then, under Dave Hakstol's admirable eight-year reign, this has been a recurring pattern: start slow, find the right line combos, then take off and finish incredibly impressively. After stints as a player with the IHL Minnesota Moose and the Indianapolis Ice, the steely-eyed, blond Hakstol has led the team into five Frozen Fours and won two Conference championships and the last three conference playoff titles. In other words, they're always there. And seven of his kids have been drafted in the NHL's first round.

The opponent on this night -- sold-out plus standing room-only, as always -- was the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. M-D won it all two years ago, after beating the Fighting Sioux in the semis. The two had played to a tie the night before (that's the WCHA pattern: Friday and Saturday night games in every conference town). If the 'Dogs could beat UND tonight, they could go home on a high.

North Dakotans are passionate about their Fighting Sioux, the only game in town.
North Dakotans are passionate about their Fighting Sioux, the only game in town.
AP

The Sioux? (technically, "UND," but not to anyone around here)? Not wanting to fall too far behind teams from states like Minnesota, whose universities have lots of kids. Added pressure? The presence of the head coach of the San Jose Sharks, on sabbatical. And a television crew from Montreal tracking two of the Canadiens' draft picks, two of the Fighting Sioux' stars: Danny Kristo and Mark McMillan.

The pregame on-ice display featured three young women in green skirts that looked like uniforms from the Squaw Valley Olympics in '60, skating with flag banners that spelled U, N, and D. I asked the sports information director if they had a name: The Fightin' Sues? The Struttin' Sues?

"No," he said.

What a stupid question. Why would they want to draw any more attention to themselves than the spotlight that followed them around the ice? They're North Dakotan Nice.

"Let's Get Ready to Play some Old-Time Hockey!" blared the PA announcer, to the delirious accompaniment of the brassy school band and the thousands of green-clad, screaming students.

The Bulldogs, preying on the jitters of backup goalie Zane Gothberg from nearby Thief River Falls, jumped to a 3-1 lead within 10 minutes. But the Ralph's energy didn't flag; these fans are not LA-ish. No one was leaving until the last sip of his or her Leinie (Leinenkugel) or the last rendition by a surprisingly hip college band (everything from the Foo Fighters to the Edgar Winter Band's to Paul Simon to Stevie Winwood).

But me? Resigned to the inevitable defeat of the team you visit once in your lifetime to celebrate, only to have them routed? I roamed the hallways, admiring the surprising sense of history. It's a museum of the game. The walls on all levels were adorned by dozens of shots of Sioux stars from as far back as games in the old humpbacked Winter Barn. An Olympic case featuring everything from meal ticket-vouchers from the 1956 Olympic Village to the cowgirl costumes from 1964 to Zach Parise's uniform. (The glass case, of course, glistens.)

I spent the second period roaming the concourses, sipping Leinie and watching the game on the monitors, listening to the distinctively North Dakotan call and responses between the PA guy and the 2,000 students in the student seats at mid-ice:

The PA guy, after a visitors' penalty runs out: "Minnesota now at full strength." Students: "That's de-BATE-able."

PA guy: "North Dakota now at full strength." Students: "We always WERE."

The best: "One minute remains in the period. One minute remaining." Students: "THANK youuuu."

*****

I'd returned to the pristine press box, with its cherry-wood storage lockers, for the beginning of third period, in time for the announcement that attendance had once again exceeded the legal capacity. By now, the Sioux had cut it to 3-2. Five minutes into the third, MacMillan scored on a sweet Kristo pass, making it 3-3 and that's how regulation ended. Bonus hockey! Bonus beer!

Overtime in the WCHA is five minutes of sudden death (although in North Dakota Nice-land I wondered why it isn't called Sudden Life). The Bulldogs dominated the first four minutes, but goalie Gothberg was now in a zone. The Sioux looked exhausted, and didn't have a single shot -- until, with 34 seconds remaining, the two future Canadiens pulled off the miracle: deep in the Bulldog zone, Kristo stripped a Duluth player of the puck and found MacMillan alone at the top of the circle. MacMillan's wrister beat the Duluth goalie cleanly, and a mob of Sioux buried him to the as the Minny goalie flopped mask first in front of his net as if shot. Even though it's only 11 years old, I do believe the Ralph was literally rocking.

Somewhere, the French TV squad was tres joyeux. And the Sharks' head coach was taking notes.

Down in the interview room -- outside the locker room -- in the time-honored polite Western Canada tradition, MacMillan (of British Columbia) gave Kristo all the credit for his pass. Then Kristo giving MacMillan all the credit for his goal. They both looked about 12.

Coach Hakstol then faced the camera and a half-dozen tape recorders, in crisp suit and crisp demeanor, unable to keep from glancing at the stat sheet while he said, in the inarguably terse logic that only the non-verbal world of hockey understands, "Chemistry is hard to explain." Then he allowed himself a half-smile and walked away with the confident demeanor of a man who could name his hockey job -- but with a recent contract extension, playing in the epicenter of the game, had already found the one he wanted.

Upstairs, on the granite floor, a kid with a huge Swoofie-ish broom was already polishing the granite floors, parting a sea of late Leinie lingerers, sipping happily as security guards nodded nearby, giving them all the time they needed to savor the vibe.

I headed for my motel up north, now glad to have been exiled, because I had a feeling that every hotel room in Grand Forks was going to be partying until a hair-of-the-dog Sunday dawn.

Up in one-stoplight Grafton, the wind carried the taste of icy expanses from The West. I asked the motel clerk what Grafton was best known for. "The high school hockey team," she said. "The Spoilers."

Then I asked her what people up here did here for fun. "Go down to the Sioux games," she said.

That was my last stupid question. Befitting the sport where action, emotion and Leinie do the talking, no more words were needed.

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