Will Sterret is on a mission to attend a game in every WCHA arena this season. Chasing McNaughton will be where he tells his story. -Ed.
If the first night is any indication of what this is going to be like, I’m in for a tremendous winter.
The weekend began with concerns about winter weather, but those eased quickly as it became apparent the pavement was far too warm for anything to stick. The snow was as much a scene-setter as anything, adding to the general atmosphere on the 6-plus hour drive from the Kansas City suburbs to Mankato.
Minnesota State’s home ice is inside Verizon Center, which is more of a complex than an individual building. It’s connected to a hotel via skybridge, and there’s plenty of room for more than one event at a time. This fact became clear very early.
I strolled through a door marked “TICKETS”, walked up to the window, and after exchanging greetings with the gal there, said “One, please.”
“Hockey or Hairball?,” she replied.
“Sorry, I can’t sell you those,” she said, with a full Minnesotan accent. “You’ll need to go out that door and around to the other side. I only have Hairball tickets.”
“Thanks,” I replied, then paused. “What’s Hairball?”
“It’s like a hair metal tribute show.”
I instantly regretted not bringing along my best friend, who is less-than-enamored with hockey but can instantly tell me how many arms the Def Leppard drummer had on each of their songs.
After finding the right door and getting a ticket for a very reasonable $16, I spent several minutes on the concourse. Great vibe. Fans dressed liberally in purple-and-gold, and weren’t just wearing their Minnesota Vikings gear a couple days early. I briefly took in the merchandise offerings, and was impressed not just with the array on hand, but also the affordability. The $85 price point for the Mavericks jersey would’ve gotten me to buy one if one had been available in my size.
Before the game came three of the greatest honors of the weekend: meeting WCHA Associate Commissioner for Public Relations Matt Hodson, Supervisor of Officials Greg Shepherd and Commissioner Bill Robertson. Each of them were warm and inviting, and shared my passion for the game, the schools and the success of the WCHA as a whole. I sincerely hope to spend more time with each of them down the road.
The arena, like so many others in the WCHA, is punctuated by the banners hanging from the rafters celebrating the high points of the school’s hockey history. The sight lines for most of the arena seem good, and while the exposed rafters, ductwork, and catwalks are somewhat spartan it doesn’t create the feeling that you’re watching hockey in a Sam’s Club. It’s easy to get to the seats, and just as easy to leave.
Before I knew it, it was time for hockey. The fans were engaged from the start, and in no time at all I got to experience the celebration that follows a goal. Minnesota State opened the scoring just 1:59 in, and the crowd erupted as the goal horn blared.
“OLE!, OLE! OLE! OLE!, OLE!, OLE!” the crowd chanted in unison as the video board flashed the lyric of the chant that I’d only heard at soccer matches. The celebration continued up until it was time to restart play, and the boisterous fans returned to their seats.
My first intermission was spent chatting on-camera with Don Westphal, play-by-play voice for Minnesota State’s TV broadcast. He’s just as warm off-camera as on, and a real class act. After several minutes discussing the WCHA, my travel plans, and even my abnormally-high level of enthusiasm for vintage soft rock, it was time to say goodbye and return to my seat.
The second period was a high-octane but scoreless affair, but the scoring resumed early in the third period with a game-tying goal from Michigan Tech. It didn’t exactly take the air out of the building, but the longer the period went on the more tense it appeared the Minnesota State crowd became.
The celebratory mood returned with a Mavericks goal at 14:48 of the third, and another one hit the net two minutes later to give Minnesota State a 3-1 lead with just over three minutes to go. The party was on. The crowd stayed engaged throughout, rising for a final applause as the final buzzer sounded. The quality of the Minnesota State-Michigan Tech matchup no doubt fueled the atmosphere, but this seemed to be a smart crowd that treated the game as a sporting event instead of a social one.
After the final buzzer, I made my way over to meet with Tech Hockey Guide’s Tim Braun, a smart, engaging hockey fan whose roots with the Tech program run deep. After chatting, we made our way to the exits. He was meeting friends and colleagues for postgame pizza and beer, while I headed down the road.
Friday night concluded with me pulling into a Quality Inn in Saint Cloud. The guy running the front desk was a biker type, nice fella and with a voice that seemed to have been aged by whiskey and cigarettes. He was quite eager to tell me the most recent person to have stayed in my room was Bret Michaels. Between that nugget and the Hairball incident earlier, I fully expected to have a dream about Whitesnake.
There was no better time or place to start the quest than Friday night in Mankato. I met some of the kindest, warmest hockey fans I’d come across—and I knew it was just the beginning.
One down, nine to go.
Cover photo credit Michigan Tech.