Each of the 11,400 seats is leather, the armrests cut from Valley Forge cherry wood. Granite tiles from India cover the floors, even in the arena's bathrooms. The chandeliers in the lobby are Italian, the escalators German, the ceilings finished in brass. On the club level sits a 26-foot-long, 1926 Mortier organ from Belgium.
The arena that Las Vegas multimillionaire Ralph Engelstad built for the North Dakota hockey team is an opulent shrine like nothing seen before on the plains of the Red River Valley. From the $2 million scoreboard to the 24-man Jacuzzi on the lower level, Engelstad has created a $100 million monument that his supporters believe will bring honor and recognition to the state and its foremost sports team. "Who would have believed it?" asks Earl Strinden, the former head of the university's alumni association. "The best arena in the country, and it's in North Dakota."
Not everyone in the state will be celebrating this Friday, however, when Ralph Engelstad Arena officially opens with a game between the Fighting Sioux, who won the 2000 NCAA title and were runners-up last season, and fellow powerhouse Minnesota. Many on and off the Grand Forks campus contend that to get the arena, the university sold its soul to Engelstad, an eccentric 70-year-old real estate and construction magnate once accused of being an admirer of Nazism. To underscore this point, protesters last February carried a black coffin to the construction site to symbolize the death of the school's integrity. By kowtowing to Engelstad, the university has also alienated its—and the state's—largest minority group, Native Americans. "This arena stands for greed and racism," says North Dakota associate communications professor Lucy Ganje. "This 'gift' has torn the campus apart."
Few people in Grand Forks (pop. 49,000) have met Engelstad, who graduated from the university in 1954 but hasn't lived in the state in 40 years. Few had even heard of him before September 1988, when he donated $5 million for the renovation of the school's previous hockey arena (which was renamed for him). Today he is the talk of the state. The son of a salesman from Thief River Falls, Minn., only 70 miles from Grand Forks, Engelstad credits what he learned as a student at North Dakota for much of his success. At 17 he was working at a summer job unloading boxcars in Grand Forks when he met Ben Gustafson, a professor, who learned that Engelstad was the goalie from the Thief River Falls High hockey team and urged him to attend North Dakota, even arranging for a scholarship. Engelstad left school after two uneventful seasons as a backup but returned a couple of years later and completed his degree in commerce.
Engelstad moved to Las Vegas in 1959 and began buying property with money he had made as a building contractor in Grand Forks. He boosted his fortune in 1967 when he sold Howard Hughes 145 acres in North Las Vegas for more than $5 million; the land was used to build the North Las Vegas Airport. Engelstad went on to open Imperial Palace casinos in Vegas and Biloxi, Miss., and to construct the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of NASCAR races. Forbes has estimated his worth at more than $400 million.
Engelstad's rise was watched closely by those at North Dakota, which has few superrich alumni and chronic funding problems because of the state's small population (642,000) and tax base. Years of cultivation by Strinden and Thomas Clifford, the university's president at the time, both of whom call Engelstad a good friend, paid off with the 1988 donation. However, as they would quickly learn, every Engelstad gift comes at a price.
During the same month that Engelstad announced his $5 million contribution, the Las Vegas media reported that he had hosted parties on Hitler's birthday in 1986 and '88 at the Imperial Palace, where he kept a large collection of Third Reich memorabilia on display in what was known as the War Room, including, among other startling sights, a painting of himself in a Nazi uniform. Without denying that he had held the parties and collected Nazi memorabilia, Engelstad issued a statement saying, "I despise Adolf Hider and everything he stood for."
Clifford formed a delegation of university representatives and sent it to Las Vegas to determine if Engelstad's actions warranted rejecting the $5 million. After a tour of the Imperial Palace (including the War Room) and a short discussion with Engelstad, the group returned to Grand Forks. Less than a week later Clifford announced that the school had determined that Engelstad had no neo-Nazi sympathies and had merely exhibited "bad taste." Four months later, though, after an investigation by the Nevada Gaming Control Board of Engelstad's reported honoring of Hitler, that state's Gaming Commission fined him $1.5 million and placed restrictions on his gaming license. The control board found evidence suggesting that bumper stickers reading HITLER WAS RIGHT had been printed at the Imperial Palace. "Had we had some of the evidence that came out later at the time we toured, at the least we would have asked to look into the matter further," says Barry Vickrey, former associate dean of the law school, who was part of the university delegation.
The school had done more than take $5 million; it had also set a precedent for how it would handle the reclusive, often prickly Engelstad (who did not respond to SI's interview requests). Says Norm MacPhee, a former member of the alumni association board, "We do a little dance to his tune because he's got a lot of money."
Engelstad has not been reluctant to call the tune. When longtime Fighting Sioux hockey coach John (Gino) Gasparini, a friend of Engelstad's, resigned under pressure in April 1994 after three straight losing seasons, Engelstad reportedly responded by sending a letter to university president Kendall Baker in which he stated that he would withhold "hundreds of millions" in donations as long as Terry Wanless remained the athletic director. It wasn't the first time Engelstad had sounded off over changes to the hockey program. In '92 Baker announced that the team's logo, which resembled the Chicago Blackhawks', would be replaced with the more abstract Indian-head design that other Fighting Sioux teams had used since '76. Engelstad led a failed drive by former North Dakota hockey players to have the old symbol restored.