Meet the new barn, not the same as the old barn

There is a certain smell, known to oblivious rink rats and despised by countless generations of mothers: Freeze-dried sweat with hints of popcorn, hot dogs and rubber, all underscored by the crisp freshness of ice.
The barn in Grand Forks, North Dakota, smells like an ice arena. And not to take anything away from places like Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, but I’m going to miss that when the Fighting Sioux move.
This weekend marks the final meeting between Minnesota and North Dakota in the old Ralph Engelstad. To tell the truth, I’m a little sad.
The new building will no doubt be beautiful, and offer all the amenities. And no one deserves it more than coach Dean Blais and his seven-time national champion fighting Sioux.
But it won’t smell like an ice arena. The student section probably won’t line up at noon for a 7 p.m. game anymore. And the old barn closing will leave St. Cloud State’s National Concrete center as the loudest building in the league.
I grew up going to hockey camp in Grand Forks. I took skating lessons from the late, great Nancy Burgraff early in the morning on Engelstad ice. In an early brush with fame, Tony Hrkac, a future Hobey Baker award winner, carried me off the ice after a slapshot hit the leather boot of my skate.
History cannot be replaced. And if baseball is any indicator, maybe someday they’ll build retro ice arenas complete with hired moms and dads behind the concession stand and piped-in old barn smell. But I doubt it.
Even Gophers players will miss the atmosphere of the old green, 6,000 seat arena.
“Its one of my favorite places. Its a small rink and the students are outside waiting before the games throwing bottles and snowballs at you, that gets the adrenaline going,” senior captain Erik Westrum said.
It’s telling that Westrum, himself a throwback, will miss a hell of a throwback arena.
They still throw dead gophers on the ice at Engelstad when North Dakota scores. Something tells me people will hesitate before hauling recently deceased vermin into a sparkling new facility.
And given Minnesota’s record at North Dakota the past four years — 1-10-1 dating back to 1994 — it speaks volumes when present and former Gophers compliment the building.
The original bowl was always filled with rowdy Sioux fans. There predilection to rodents notwithstanding, the crowd would cheer their team loudly and taunt the visitor — especially the Gophers — even louder.
“I like the fans, even though they get on you,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “They enjoy their hockey. There’s a large student presence which makes for a great environment. If you’re an athlete, whether they’re cheering for you or against you its fun to be in the building,”
Things weren’t always so rosy.
“I’d like to forget the time I played there in the playoffs (1980),” Lucia said. “During the introduction, I wiped out at the blueline and my helmet went flying into the corner. I got a standing ovation.”
Rest assured, self-respecting Fighting Sioux fans will cheer gaffes like that, in any building.

Josh Linehan is the sports editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]