Ridder Arena nears completion despite financial concerns

Mark Heller

Send a U-Haul to Mariucci Arena. Minnesota women’s hockey coach Laura Halldorson is packing up her championships and moving – next door.

From the moment she arrived on campus in 1996, Halldorson knew Mariucci would suffice as an apartment before the house. Even the women’s hockey national championship and WCHA title banners are eerily out of place, swallowed whole by the men’s 80-year historical championship showcase.

Not anymore.

By next fall, Mariucci’s sidekick to the west will take form as Ridder Arena, the new home to women’s hockey and both tennis teams.

Other than a boathouse for the rowing team and some individual upgrades over time, women’s athletics director Chris Voelz declared this project to be the last major facility constructed on her watch.

“I don’t see that in the cards or even my dreams,” Voelz said. “I think we’ve done a great job of taking our facilities from last in the Big Ten to some of the top in the nation. But we’re good to go for a long time.”

If this, indeed, turns out to be the last of big-time facility spending, then it was a wild ride.

How else could you explain ultimatums, CPR and cutting out windows surrounding a sports venue?

Do or die

Initially, a $13.2 million facility was approved by the University Board of Regents. This was in September 1998, two years after the women’s hockey program first hit the ice.

It took almost three years – April 2001 – before Voelz, benefactors Bob and Kathy Ridder, Halldorson and others broke ground, because construction bids exceeded the budget by nearly $4 million.

Break out the red pen.

First came doubts about whether the hockey team needed to be the first in the country with its own facility. Scrap the new hockey arena, doubters said, and build a desperately-needed, tennis-only building instead.

Not a chance.

But University President Mark Yudof issued Voelz, who was about to have knee replacement surgery, an ultimatum in March 2000: come up with $1.2 million in six weeks, or the hockey arena remains a dream.

“There were many times we were in CPR, many occasions we gasped for air,” said Voelz. “The first time we went in front of the Regents (construction costs) were over budget, and how can you go in front of your bosses and say, `This is over’?

“I tend to be the person who runs the marathon and has a poor enough memory to run a second one.”

She pulled it off.

“Ring, ring, cha-ching”

Cutting back had begun, knee surgery was halted, and the phone calls began.

In addition to a $500,000 gift from John and Sage Cowles, major women’s athletics benefactors, they gave an additional $300,000. The Ridders gave $200,000 on top of their original $750,000. Department staff brought in another $25,000. It was $50,000 here, $25,000 there. Men’s athletics director Tom Moe brought more in from the tennis community.

“We literally shook every branch we could and hoped some money would fall,” Voelz said.

And more money fell than even Voelz could have hoped for.

During a March 2000 inner-circle booster meeting with the entire department, Voelz talked of the near-certain doom of the hockey arena and mentioned the need to raise money. To help make a dent in the debt, cross country and track and field coach Gary Wilson did some numbers-crunching.

Wilson figured out if each person in the department gave up $20 out of each paycheck for the next five years, $2,500 per person would be raised.

Wilson got 25 people to join in and raised nearly $50,000.

“It was a grassroots thing. I don’t know if it helped get bigger pledges or not,” Wilson said. “It was just something appropriate and I really like Laura, and when (former women’s tennis coach) Martin Novak was here he was a close friend of mine.

“The next one I do is going to be for the Gary Wilson retirement fund.”

 

A lap of luxuries

Halldorson’s Gophers led the WCHA in attendance, averaging just over 1,000 per game during the last four years. Seven times they have drawn over 2,000.

Mariucci, which holds 9,700, sounds and feels like a ghost yard to the women’s team. Ridder Arena will hold a more intimate 3,400 patrons, including 210 club seats and four suites. The 200-foot by 85-foot rink will be a reduction from Mariucci’s Olympic-sized 200-by-100 sheet and more comparable with other arenas.

“The first couple seasons (sheet size) didn’t matter because the opponents were either significantly better or worse than we were,” Halldorson said. “Now that teams are so close and there’s so much more parity, those little differences can be big.”

The team will also have its own weight room, locker rooms and coaches offices.

However, some of the original design plans were altered. The regents rejected Voelz’s proposal to use less brick on the building’s facade, requiring a certain amount of brick in keeping with the rest of the University buildings’ design.

There will be far fewer windows in the arena than planned, some seats with no backs, less square footage and a narrower weight room.

The tennis teams will get 10 indoor tennis courts on the west side of the building and eight outdoor courts directly west of the indoor courts. Four more outdoor courts will replace the small University parking lot on Fifth Street.

With no legitimate venue on campus, both the men’s and women’s teams had to shuttle to various Northwest Athletic clubs in the suburbs for practices and matches.

“This is tremendous for us,” said men’s tennis coach David Geatz. “I’ve been here 13 years and every year this was talked about. Finally, no more driving in winter and sitting in traffic every day for an hour just to get to 98th Street (Racquet Club) or Burnsville.”

Added recently hired women’s coach Tyler Thomson: “The new facility is essential not only for recruiting but for conducting individual workouts on a regular basis which is an absolute necessity for a successful program.”

Stuck in the red

Not everyone, however, is automatically on board. Former men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart, who helped raise money for the facility before his contract was not renewed in 1999, is leery of the large debt service owed over the next several years and that it might eliminate previous dreams of earning revenue for both departments.

“I was excited about it and genuinely believed in this,” said Dienhart. “I wouldn’t have gone to the Legislature and tried to sell this if I didn’t believe it.

“But when I left the University it was clear the appetite far exceeded the resources. If what I’ve read is true (of the project being over budget, cuts made and emergency funding needing to be raised) – and it’s only what I’ve read – it doesn’t seem to have turned out the way it was planned.”

Voelz acknowledged the reality of an $8 million debt service to the University owed by 2020, but she remains confident revenue from suites, advertising, private ice-time rental and season-ticket sales will pick up the slack.

Whether the new arena brings in the money both sides are banking on remains to be seen, but it’s too late to turn back now.

So pack your bags and banners, coaches. Profit or debt, it’s almost moving time.

“Once we earned some titles they were recognized in Mariucci, but we’ve always known it was a temporary home for us,” said Halldorson. “We’re looking forward to creating our own tradition.”

 

Mark Heller welcomes comments at [email protected]