MANKATO -- When the hockey writer has the weekend off and doesn’t have any hockey writing to do, what does he do? Yep, he goes to a hockey game.

That’s the situation in which I found myself Saturday afternoon, when dropping anchor to watch all of college football’s conference championship games had a bit of a been-there, done-that feel. Instead, a thought entered my mind. “Hey, how ’bout a quick road trip down to Mankato to watch the Mavs play Lake State?’’

A check of the Marriott points confirmed the hotel would be free, so a duffel bag was loaded into the Puck Drop Civic, gasoline and caffeine were topped off and the writer was leaving the Eagan office for the 75-mile jaunt to see Minnesota State, the nation’s top-ranked men’s hockey team.

A quick hotel check-in and an Uber ride -- hey, Mankato’s a fun town; gotta be careful – got me downtown by 5 p.m. for the 6 o’clock start, enough time to get the lay of the land and grab a bite to eat. Blue Bricks was the choice, but there are plenty of places within a short walk of the Mankato Civic Center to handle your pregame needs. While on-campus hockey rinks are great, Mankato’s set-up downtown is one to envy, too.

This trip was all about the spectator experience, so no press pass for me this time. Instead, I got in line at the Civic Center and waited my turn to pay the incredibly fan-friendly $18 adult admission price. But I didn’t even get to do that, because a benevolent Mavs fan tapped me on the shoulder with an offer of a couple of free tickets. I gladly accepted one, and he declined an offer for payment. And as it turned out, the ticket was in the lower level, center ice, seven rows up – right in front of the press box. Minnesota nice strikes again.

This was my first visit to the Civic Center for a game in about six years, and the experience has improved. Arena renovations, including a state-of-the-art video board, have upped the game. And there are plenty of refreshment and food options in the concourse, with reasonable prices. A pint of craft beer, for example, was $5.50, much more wallet-friendly than the $10-plus you might pay at Twin Cities venues.

As for the product on the ice, it didn’t disappoint. The Mavericks, who beat Lake Superior State 5-1 the night before, grinded out a 2-0 win Saturday on goals by the marvelous Marc Michaelis and Jake Jaremko and the shut-down goaltending of Dryden McKay, who would win the WCHA’s goalie of the week award for the third straight week and fifth time this season. Coach Mike Hastings’ team is 14-1-1 and has a look of a national championship contender if it can get over that pesky NCAA first-round hump. The Mavericks are the only team to beat No. 2 North Dakota (14-1-2), and their only loss was in overtime to Bowling Green.

As the satisfied crowd filed out of the Civic Center and dispersed to the downtown hotspots , it struck me that Mankato just might be one of Minnesota’s under-the-radar hockey gems.

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