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"Ice palace" opens at UND
By Dan Gunderson
Minnesota Public Radio
October 5, 2001
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The Minnesota Gopher men's hockey team is in Grand Forks Friday evening to play arch rival the University of North Dakota. The game may be overshadowed by the venue. Tonight marks the opening of the ornate and controversial Ralph Engelstad Arena, which some see as a hockey palace. Others see it as a shrine to racism.

The $100 million Ralph Engelstad Arena, the new home to men's hockey at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Take a virtual tour of the arena.
(MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)
IT ALREADY HAS A NICKNAME - RALPH'S PALACE. It's a far cry from the warehouse where millionaire Las Vegas casino owner Ralph Engelstad once played back-up goalie for UND in the 1950s. No expense was spared, no detail overlooked in this $100 million showpiece. The amenities seem endless. Imported granite from India with brass accents on the concourse floors, plush arena seats, the $2 million scoreboard above the ice, the TV monitors in the bathrooms.

"It's been a project of a lifetime. It's just been a great deal of fun," says Bill Schoen, lead architect for the project. "We have millions of dollars tied up in scoreboards, video boards, instant replay - lots of really fun stuff."

That's what the fans will notice. In the lower levels, players can work out in the largest weight room of any hockey facility in the world, recover from injuries on an underwater treadmill, and keep their hockey sticks fresh in a climate-controlled storage room.

"We've got a lot no one else has, and we're still going to try to play good hard-nosed hockey," says UND head coach Dean Blais.

These days, Blais is grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. Recruiting players just got a lot easier. Only the pros have access to better facilities. But Blais also knows people will expect a winner.

"Would they put a picture of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary there and have people walk over it with dirty boots?"

- American Indian activist Clyde Bellecourt, on the Fighting Sioux logos inlaid in the arena floor
"You can't get spoiled. There's a tendency to soften up when you get in a building like this. We have to say no one is going to feel sorry for us because we're playing 10 or 11 freshmen every game. We've won enough games in the last five years to tick off everyone," says Blais.

The coach is interrupted by an exhibition of the arena's multi-million-dollar sound and light system. Green lasers pulse across the seats as white spotlights dance across the ice.

But not everyone is charmed by Ralph's palace. A short way across the UND campus, about 100 people gather to talk about the use of American Indian nicknames and logos. As American Indian Movement founder Clyde Bellecourt asks for a blessing on the event, audience members file by, some with tears streaming down their cheeks, to drop bits of tobacco in a bowl.

Clyde Bellecourt says the lavish use of the Fighting Sioux logo in the new arena is a slap in the face of Indian people. Visitors entering the arena will pass a huge statue of Sitting Bull, then see a statue of Ralph Engelstad on the wall, and a large Indian head logo on floor. Everyone entering will walk across the Indian's face.

"Would they put a picture of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary there and have people walk over it with dirty boots?" asks Bellecourt. "That'd be desecrating. I'm sure the Christian people would stand up and say something. To have thousands of people walking over you every day - That's a desecration and an insult."

Bellecourt says the arena is a classic example of those with the most money making the rules. Anti-nickname groups have been campaigning against the UND logo for years. Local tribes have repeatedly asked the school to drop the nickname. It looked as if the school was on the verge of doing it last year, but then Ralph Engelstad threatened to immediately stop the arena construction. The school kept the name.

About the Ralph Engelstad Arena
  • Cost: $100 million
  • 11,500 seats
  • 100,000 sq. ft. of granite imported from India
  • 3.2 miles of brass inlay in floors
  • 14 locker rooms
  • 48 luxury suites
  • $2 million Daktronic scoreboard
  • 900 ft. television screen runs around the arena's upper level
  • 300 television monitors, including several in each restroom
  • Microphones in board and nets amplify sounds of ice action - part of $250,000 sound system
  • One-piece flexible boards protect players
  • Arena seats are same as those found in luxury suites at the Xcel Center in St. Paul
    Engelstad is no stranger to controversy. He was once fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Commission for holding Nazi theme parties at his casino. Engelstad says he made a mistake. The reclusive millionaire rarely gives interviews, but has said the Fighting Sioux logo honors Native Americans. Engelstad's company owns the new arena, but is leasing it to the school for $1 per year. All profits from the facility will go to UND.

    The arena that's now the focus of anger from many American Indians may also damage UND's standing as a university with one of the finest American Indian studies programs in the nation. Program Director Leigh Jeanotte says he's happy for the hockey program, but he's worried about the reaction of American Indian students.

    "I know some of the tribes have gone on record nearly stating they're going to boycott our institution," says Jeanotte. "From the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, we typically have 10 or 15 students from that reservation coming to UND. This year we have one transfer student."

    Jeanotte says the Fighting Sioux nickname will not be changed any time soon. He is hopeful the American Indian studies program will survive the ongoing controversy. University officials say they will spend millions to improve opportunities for American Indian students.

    Many Grand Forks residents are smarting from the national media reports painting their town as a bastion of racism. Oly Olafson is a UND graduate who now teaches at the university.

    "We're not racist. We're Norwegians, we're Icelanders, we're Germans, we're Swedes. We're a mix of people. I don't look down on Indian people, we as a whole in Grand Forks don't look down on Indian people. Some of the faculty are more liberal than a lot of the people in Grand Forks, and they think it's a problem," says Olafson.

    Those opposition voices say they will continue to speak out at UND, but they may have a hard time being heard above the roar from Ralph's Palace.

    More Information
  • University of North Dakota
  • American Indian Movement
  • MPR Project - Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country