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Another season of hockey kicks off at The Ralph

UND Hockey fans cheer on their team against the Bemidji State Beavers, October 22, 2016 at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, North Dakota (Photo by Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

During the summer, Ralph Engelstad Arena closed off three sections at a time, while arena workers painted every inch of the bowl.

After those three sections were complete, they'd move on to new ones, circulating the entire arena until everything had a fresh coat of paint.

When UND men's hockey fans return to Ralph Engelstad Arena tonight for the opening of the 2017-18 season with a 7:07 p.m. exhibition game against the University of Manitoba, they'll notice another series of upgrades, which have become the norm in the offseason for the 16-year-old rink.

The goal is simple: Keep The Ralph looking like it's Year 1.

"I think the most important thing is that we keep our mission of maintaining a world-class facility in terms of maintaining the building and making sure it's motivating to fans," said Jody Hodgson, Ralph Engelstad Arena's general manager. "The standard of which we try to set that bar is very high."

Buoyed heavily by the success of the men's hockey program—it has reached the NCAA tournament 15 years in a row, winning an NCAA national title two years ago—Ralph Engelstad Arena continues to be a destination during fall and winter weekends.

The Ralph sold out of its season-ticket allotment once again—it has every year since the building opened in 2001—and a waiting list remains.

It also sold out of its allotment of student season tickets this year. Only a select number of single-game student tickets remain.

UND was able to charge $99 per ticket for its home series against rival Minnesota—and that also sold out in seconds.

While the hockey team has done its part to drive interest, Hodgson and his staff try to find ways to improve the experiences at games.

Hodgson often attends games at other venues and analyzes what they are doing.

"I get out a bit," he said. "I purposely try to get out and see other NHL buildings or even other sports to see what other people are doing for game presentation, what they are doing for video boards and food and beverage. We certainly try to steal best practices and monitor the industry."

Some of the changes fans will notice this season include a new concession stand with a meat carver behind Section 107, grab-and-go snack stands, an NHL 18 Xbox tournament stand for kids and a Carter Rowney Stanley Cup tribute on a wall by the south escalators. Rowney won hockey's greatest prize in June.

Next summer, The Ralph may replace the fascia ribbon that circles the arena displaying graphics between the lower and upper desks.

Hodgson also said they are looking at ways to spice up the UND-Minnesota series on Oct. 20-21.

"Everybody's got that one circled," Hodgson said. "It's going to be a fantastic weekend. We're working on some plans for special events to be tied to that weekend, like striping the stands—people wearing green, black or white in different sections. We're going to try some fun things and see if they work."

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 12th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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