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September 28, 2018

Top 5: NCAA Division 1 Ice Hockey Rinks & Arenas in the Country

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Collegiate ice hockey is a sport that doesn’t typically get nearly as much attention, at the NCAA level, as sports like football and basketball. One of the main challenges to growing the popularity of college ice hockey is similar to college baseball: the best players get drafted to professional leagues and bypass college athletics altogether. Other professional leagues have eligibility requirements aimed at encouraging top prospects to attend college for some amount of time. For example, to be eligible for the NBA Draft, an individual has to either be 19 years of age or completed one year of college (Unnamed Writer, NBA.com). Since top prospects tend to favor becoming NBA Draft-eligible as young as possible, this requirement heavily incentivizes them to play NCAA basketball for at least one season. The NFL Draft’s eligibility criterion is slightly different, but the goal is still to incentivize top NFL prospects to play NCAA football. To be eligible for the NFL Draft, you must have a minimum gap of three years after your high school graduation (Johnson, SB Nation). Though you’re technically not required to play college football, NFL scouts will be much more reluctant to select someone who hasn’t played at a top-tier FBS program than someone who has.

The NHL Entry Draft eligibility requirements are very dissimilar. To be eligible for the NHL, American players must be between the ages of 18-20 and non-American players must be 18-21 years of age (NHL Draft Rules, DraftSite). There are no requirements for players to play any level of collegiate hockey, as many players drafted into the NHL are international. College sports fans want to see the best players on the field; in nearly every case, the collegiate sports with professional leagues that essentially force high school athletes to play at last two seasons in college have the more significant fan followings. Hockey is also more of an international player dominated sport – like soccer – whereas football and basketball are sports dominated by American-born athletes.

Nonetheless, college ice hockey does have a very significant fan following and that’s reflected in numbers. Schools spend money on the very best athletic facilities for programs that have a substantial value to the school. Fan attendance undeniably has a very strong correlation to the program’s overall value to the school. With that being said, here are LRT Sports’ Top 5 college sports hockey arenas, ranked by total official capacity:

#5: Mariucci Arena – Minnesota Golden Gophers Men’s Ice Hockey (Capacity: 10,000)

Photo by Minnesota Athletics

Starting off the Top 5 list is Mariucci Arena, home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s ice hockey team. Named after John Mariucci – longtime Gopher coach who’s nicknamed the “godfather of Minnesota hockey” – this arena opened in 1993 right on the University of Minnesota’s campus (Mizutani, Minnesota Daily). In fact, under the gated entrance the fans enter a famous quote from Mariucci that reads “Through these gates walk the greatest fans in college hockey” (Rayno, Star Tribune). Mariucci Arena’s most prominent recognition came in 2007, when Sports Illustrated on Campus, named the venue one of the top ten in all of the collegiate sports – the only ice hockey arena to make that list (Unnamed Writer, Sports Illustrated on Campus).

Mariucci Arena has an official capacity of 10,000, with 9600 seats in the “main bowl” and the rest in clubrooms and suite seating. While currently only the University of Minnesota men’s ice hockey team plays here, up until 2002 the women’s Golden Gophers ice hockey team played here as well. Prior to the 2012 season, the arena completed its first significant upgrade project that included a new scoreboard, a new Daktronics video board, and the addition of a fascia display surrounding the arena (Mizutani, Minnesota Daily). Almost immediately after, in May 2014, an additional $8 million privately funded renovation project to Mariucci Arena was announced (Mizutani, Minnesota Daily).

#4: Ralph Engelstad Arena – North Dakota Fighting Hawks Men’s Ice Hockey (Capacity: 11,640)

Next, on LRT Sports’ Top 5 list at #4 is Ralph Engelstad Arena (REA), commonly called “The Ralph,” with a capacity of 11,640. Home of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks men’s ice hockey team, the arena is located in the heart of the University of North Dakota’s campus. When it opened in 2001, The Ralph was home to both the men and women’s Fighting Hawks hockey teams; however, the University of North Dakota cut their women’s ice hockey program in 2017 (Ruibal, USA Today).

The Fighting Hawks’ men’s hockey team is easily the most renowned athletic program at the University of North Dakota, winning eight national championships to date (Albright, ESPN). While it makes sense that such a highly successful athletic program would have a top-notch home facility, Ralph Engelstad Arena is in a league of its own. Called the “Taj Mahal of hockey,” the construction of the arena cost a staggering $104 million (The New Ralph, Duluth News Tribune). REA has many amenities that are extremely rare to find in other arenas, as well as some that are one of a kind. Some of these features include concourses covered in granite flooring, cherry wood spectator seats with leather upholstery, multiple full-color LCD displays, multiple escalators on each level of the arena, and over 300 television sets (The New Ralph, Duluth News Tribune). The facility is so impressive that Wayne Gretzky called it “one of the most beautiful buildings we have in North America” (Unnamed Writer, Associated Press).  

#3: Kohl Center – Wisconsin Badgers Men’s Ice Hockey (Capacity: 15,325)

The Kohl Center comes in at #3 with an official maximum ice hockey stadium capacity of 15,359. Unlike the previous two arenas on the list, the Kohl Center is not only home to the University of Wisconsin’s men’s ice hockey team, but both their men’s and women’s basketball programs as well. Opened in 1998, the Kohl Center is named after Herb Kohl (owner of Kohl’s department stores) after his $25 million donations to the arena’s construction project (Derby, The Capital Times).

Most people know the Kohl Center for historically delivering a tremendous home-field advantage for the Badgers. Nicknamed “The Madhouse in Madison,” the arena gained national notoriety during a 38 game home win streak for the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team that lasted through the 2004-05 season (Bennett, ESPN). The home field advantage certainly isn’t exclusive to the Badgers’ basketball program, as the Kohl Center has consistently touted the nation’s highest ice hockey attendance multiple years (Unnamed Writer, USCHO). The Badgers’ fan loyalty throughout the years has become well known; for years many throughout the college sports world have referred to their student section as the “Grateful Red.” The Badgers men’s ice hockey team has undoubtedly given their fans a reason to support them, as their six school national championships rank them with the fourth most in college ice hockey history (College Ice Hockey Inc).

#2: XL Center – Connecticut Huskies Men’s Ice Hockey (Capacity: 15,564)

The second largest college ice hockey arena in the country is the XL Center, a multi-purpose arena located in downtown Hartford, CT. Home of both the men’s basketball and ice hockey team’s, the XL Center has an official maximum capacity of 15,564 (University of Connecticut Department of Athletics). This arena is much older than the first three on the list, opening for the first time in 1975 with a construction cost of $30 million (Swift, Hartford Courant). The NBA’s Boston Celtics have also played almost 70 home games in the XL Center since it first opened in 1975 (Basketball-Reference).

In this case, there’s no doubt the University of Connecticut men’s ice hockey team benefits from the success of the university’s basketball team. The Huskies men’s basketball team has won four national championships, with two coming very recently in 2011 and 2014 (NCAA.com). They have ten Big East conference championships, while the Huskies men’s ice hockey team has a single conference championship that came in 2000, with no other impressive accolades to highlight. Even so, the success of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team has made the XL Center well worthy of making this list. Not only is the capacity amongst the top in college sports arena’s, but the facility has also undergone a far higher than average number of upgrades and construction projects over the years. Most recently, in 2014 the Connecticut State Legislature approved $35 million in guaranteed funding for a host of upgrades to the XL Center, which wound up being completed by the start of the 2014-15 season (Jacobs, Harford Courant).   

#1: Value City Arena – Ohio State Buckeyes Men’s Ice Hockey (Capacity: 17,500)

The largest arena in college ice hockey is the Value Center Arena, a multi-purpose arena that’s home to the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s ice hockey team. Located directly on the Ohio State University campus, the country’s largest ice hockey arena has an official maximum capacity of 17,500 (OSU Athletics). Similar to the case with the #2 arena on this list – the XL Center – the Ohio State men’s basketball team is largely the reason the Value City Arena makes this list, as they share the arena with the Buckeyes men’s ice hockey team. That’s not to say the Buckeyes men’s ice hockey team isn’t a solid college sports program; they have two regular season conference championships, 8 NCAA tournament appearances, and 2 Frozen Four appearances (NCAA.com). One can’t argue that pales in comparison to the University of Ohio men’s basketball team, who’s won a national championship, made eleven Final Four appearances, and won 22 regular season conference championships (NCAA.com).

Regardless of whether or not the Buckeyes men’s basketball team outshines the men’s ice hockey program, the Value City Arena is extremely impressive and that goes beyond its capacity, which is why it’s the #1 arena on this LRT Sports Top 5. Opened in 1998, the original construction cost of the facility was $110 million, or $172 million in 2017 dollars (Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis). When adjusted for 2017 dollars, the Value City Arena is the most expensive facility on this list. While the overall structure is enormous, that doesn’t stop home fans from making this arena one of the loudest in the country. The student section at Buckeye home games has become known around the country as the “Buckeye Nuthouse,” which is mostly attributable to Ohio State’s great home field advantage (Rabinowitz, The Columbus Dispatch). The arena is wholly owned by the Ohio State University Department of Athletics. While no significant upgrade projects are yet to take place, the Value City Arena is consistently kept up-to-date with the latest technological innovations. Additionally, there are reports of internal talks taking place within the university to potentially start prepping for a major upgrade project sometime shortly after the 2020 season (Brennan, ESPN).