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At The Ralph, preparations underway for 'magical' college sports night

Hours before fans fill the Ralph Engelstad Arena for the UND-Minnesota hockey game, Aaron Lommen applies a wax to the glass as he and other maintainence workers ready the arena for the return of the rivalry game to Grand Forks. More than 525 workers will be on duty for the weekend series. Eric Hylden/Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — The smell of fresh almonds and the click-clack of hockey practice filled the halls at Ralph Engelstad Arena on Thursday, Oct. 19, tokens of a mountain of preparation snapping into place for the University of North Dakota's big hockey series this weekend.

The University of Minnesota Gophers are coming to town for a two-game rivalry series against the Fighting Hawks, and there's plenty to do at the arena. More than 500 employees go into making games at The Ralph a success — with crews working parking, concessions, custodial duty, security, maintenance, ice duty, concierge service, kitchen work, bartending and more—and there will be no bigger moments for hockey at The Ralph this season.

"It's kind of one of those magical college sports environments," said Jody Hodgson, the arena's general manager. "It's Duke and Carolina in basketball, Ohio State and Michigan in football — North Dakota and Minnesota hockey, it's that."

But making sure everything is in place is a work-intensive process. Charlie Muus, The Ralph's director of maintenance and operations, is the conductor for a symphony of preparation, making sure the television crews have power, the ice is the right thickness and that temperatures are just right in the arena. He starts his game days with a morning drive around the outside of the arena, and his Friday night will end at roughly 11 p.m.

Muus said the arena stays in a constant readiness for big crowds, but he summed up the difference this weekend in one word: hype.

Ticket prices were soaring on Thursday, with two near center ice lower bowl on Saturday selling at $657 on Upper-bowl tickets for the same night were no cheaper than $99. Those contrast with a Nov. 10 game at The Ralph when UND takes on Miami of Ohio for which tickets from the same outlet are no more than $175.

Weekends like these usually bring a surge of guests to the community, and with a UND football game on Saturday — the Hawks will play the Sacramento State Hornets — there will likely be that much more traffic through hotels, bars and restaurants, said Julie Rygg, executive director of the local convention and visitors bureau. She cautioned, though, that it's tough to estimate just how many guests will be in town from high ticket sales alone, which could be purchased from anywhere.

For police officers, it's a busy weekend, too. UND Police Sgt. Danny Weigel said that, while the average hockey game at The Ralph might draw two to four officers, this one will see six to eight actually at the arena.

"There'll be a lot of people in a sold-out house," Weigel said. "Anytime the Gophers come to town, it's a big rivalry weekend. I wouldn't say we're going to be busier, but there are more people."

And, as they've done in past years, the police chiefs from both universities have a little side-bet going. Whichever school loses Friday's game will see its chief don the victor's jersey for a day. Weigel's confident it won't be UND's chief.

"This is the year," Weigel said. "We're gonna break the streak."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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