The first team I ever loved, and the only team that never let me down, was the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team.
Growing up in Grand Forks, hockey was the biggest show in town. The first game I remember came in the 1981-82 season, when I was 5, and that team ended up winning an NCAA title.
Usually with my grandparents, who would get tickets from friends who had season tickets, I must have gone to another 40 or 50 games over the next five years.
By the time I was 10, I was all in on a team for the first time ever, and UND again won the NCAA title. Any other outcome seemed impossible to me — setting me up, it seems, for a reality-filled 31 years that followed of mostly disappointments (and no, I was not a Twins fan back in the day).
Those were different times in so many ways. UND played in the previous incarnation of Ralph Engelstad Arena, a classic college hockey venue but not much to look at.
Between periods, I would take off running by myself — permitted to do so by my grandparents — and see how many laps around the concourse would fit before the next puck drop. As a parent of two small children now, that seems terrifying (not to mention annoying for the people I inevitably crashed into), but it was the law of the rink in the mid-1980s.
As it turns out, 1987 was the last great North Dakota season for a while. My interest faded, and by the time UND was relevant again the relationship was complicated.
It was the mid-1990s by then, and I was down at the University of Minnesota — slowly converting into being a Gophers fan, and later covering the men’s hockey team for the campus newspaper, the Minnesota Daily.
There were a couple of trips to the “Old Ralph” in those years, but by 2001 I was an adult who could make decisions such as “winter is a terrible time to visit North Dakota” and generally stayed away during hockey season.
All of this is a very long windup, I know, but on Friday the circumstance of helping my mom move to Florida (she, too, has now figured out winter is a terrible time to be in North Dakota) and a relative having an extra ticket brought me to a UND hockey game for the first time in about 20 years.
That meant I was inside what I still call the “New Ralph” — even though it opened in 2001 and is therefore not even close to new anymore — for the first time ever, a fact that surprises a lot of people who know that I love sports and hail from Grand Forks.
Many of you know this already, but it’s not an understatement to suggest the building is on par with nice NHL arenas. The concourses are, of course, much wider than the old place and are filled with plenty of chances to eat and drink. I made a lap between periods for old time’s sake, this time at the pace of a walk instead of a run.
Inside, all the old songs from the school band were still familiar. The nickname has since been changed from Fighting Sioux to Fighting Hawks, a fact that seems to have been completely ignored by the fan base. They do a race between periods on motorized beer coolers, which is as great as it sounds.
North Dakota lost 4-2 to Colorado College on Friday, but now that I’m more of a casual observer than a die-hard fan I can still say the team has never let me down.