Joel Johnson, tasked by his boss to keep a $75 million secret, stayed true to his word. Still, the St. Thomas women's hockey coach allowed himself to envision the fall of 2025, when the new home of Tommies' hockey and basketball is scheduled to open.
"Privately, I walked across the street the other day when I found out the news and just stood in the location where the front of the building is going to be,'' Johnson said Tuesday. "I had a pause of gratitude and excitement.''
Sharing in Johnson's vision were St. Thomas men's hockey coach Rico Blasi, plus men's basketball coach Johnny Tauer and women's basketball coach Ruth Sinn. Thanks to a gift of $75 million from Lee and Penny Anderson, the Tommies hockey and basketball programs will play in the Lee & Penny Anderson Arena in two years.
Athletic director Phil Esten said the $175 million project will be located on St. Thomas's south campus, and the cost of design and construction is estimated at $143 million. Esten added that the $75 million gift from the Andersons accounts for roughly 60% of the $131 million fundraising goal for the project.
The four coaches had known about the development for a couple of weeks, but "they did a great job of keeping a lid on it,'' Esten said. Once freed to comment, the coaches' joy flowed.
"I'm really, really excited for our fan base, our alums, the guys who came before, the ladies who came before,'' Blasi said. "This is special.''
Filling hockey need
St. Thomas is in its second year as an NCAA Division I program after making the unprecedented move up directly from Division III. A new hockey arena was a priority for Esten, but this multipurpose facility addresses basketball, too.
The arena is expected to seat 4,000 for hockey and 5,000 for basketball, and it will have two ice sheets, plus a basketball practice facility. For the Tommies, it will replace St. Thomas Ice Arena, a 1,000-seat hockey facility at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, and on-campus Schoenecker Arena, which holds 1,800 for basketball.
"The renderings I've seen about this new facility are going to put us at the top,'' Johnson said. "It doesn't mean it's the best, but it's certainly going to be one of the best in not only our league, but across the country.''
Blasi called it a "a game-changer'' for recruiting. He also looked forward to playing host to CCHA foes Minnesota State Mankato and Bemidji State, and state powers Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State.
"We have five pretty darn good programs [in Minnesota] that are competing at a high level,'' Blasi said, "and we want to be one of those to make it six.''
Basketball's next step
Tauer and Sinn couldn't wait to call their staffs now that they can use a new state-of-the-art facility to add to their recruiting pitches. The arena will debut right when both basketball programs are eligible for the NCAA tournament in 2025-26.
"It's going to expedite our progress and the speed in which we can recruit and build a huge fan base," Tauer said. "I love the arena we play in. We've had a lot of success in that arena, and it gets loud. It's a great environment, but this is going to be that next step in the Division I transition."
The Summit League's second-smallest venue in capacity for basketball belongs to the Tommies at 1,800, but they'll move closer to the league's upper half with the 5,000 seats in the new facility. That potentially could create an even stronger homecourt advantage.
"You see the growth of women's basketball taking steps in really starting to pack places and bring an excitement to the sport," Sinn said. "That's where this facility is going to be so incredible because it's going to help give us that platform to start doing that here."
The Tommies men's basketball 2022 recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the Summit League and the next crop of local recruits have even more of a reason to stay home.
"It's just a game-changer for us," sophomore guard Jade Hill said. "My teammates and I thought there were nice arenas [in the Summit League]. We always wondered, 'What if we had that at St. Thomas?' So, to see this happening is really amazing. Now people are going to be jealous of us because it's new."