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Ralph Engelstad Arena, UND hockey honor Al Pearson, retire his iconic Fighting Sioux cowboy hat

Al Pearson barely made it to the event to honor him. The 85-year-old was discharged from the hospital just two hours before the opening faceoff.

Al Pearson night
Al Pearson — who has battled Parkinsons for the past 17 years — almost missed his special night. The 85-year-old spent the past two days in the hospital with blood clots in his lungs and was released just two hours prior to the opening faceoff.<br/>
Matt Henson/WDAY
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GRAND FORKS — History at Ralph Engelstad Arena Friday night.

For the first time ever a fan was honored with a special night.

Al Pearson has been a familiar face on game night since he first enrolled at the University of North Dakota 60 years ago, when he was too broke to buy a ticket.

"He wrapped up a blanket and pretend it was a baby so people would let him in," said Al Pearson's daughter, Joanna Pearson.

Al quickly fell in love with UND hockey and wanted to be at away games too.

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For 50 years, he took busloads of UND hockey fans across the country.

"Al Pearson is the reason that you see so much green on the road and when people refer to the phrase 'Always a home game,' I think those things started with Al's bus and Al's trips, he kind of laid the foundation for what we think is the most passionate and loyal fan base in college hockey," said Ralph Engelstad general manager Jody Hodgson.

When Al Pearson came to the Ralph on Friday, Jan. 20, he was a little surprised to be greeted by rival fans who joined a sellout crowd of 11,000 fans to surprise him for Al Pearson Night — the Ralph even distributing his face on a stick.

"We realize there is some danger in it. People have said, 'How can you pick one person,' or, 'How can you single someone out like that?' I think tonight is the night we do it because he's uniquely qualified to be that fan we recognize. I think he's had an impact like no other, and I think it's appropriate for us to do it."

Al Pearson has formed bonds with players and coaches most fans don't have.

"Everything he does for us or has done, whether it's the buses or just comes around the rink and lifts guys spirits up, it's awesome," said UND Fighting Hawks captain Mark Senden.

Al Pearson — who has battled Parkinson's disease for the past 17 years — almost missed his special night. The 85-year-old spent the past two days in the hospital with blood clots in his lungs and was released just two hours prior to the opening faceoff.

Al Pearson night has been in the works for months, but his daughter admits there were days she feared the worst.

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"I can't shake the feeling that I could be sitting in the rink alone and they said that don't you think that is what he would want everybody partying there for him," said Joanna Pearson.

When the final horn does sound on Al Pearson's life, his legacy will never be forgotten at the Ralph. His white, Fighting Sioux Cowboy hat will be placed in a shadow box outside of section 106, where he has season tickets.

"It's really hard to think that, because when they do that it, means he won't be here. But to be able to see he meant that much to so many people that they want to keep that memory alive is beyond words," Joanna Pearson said.

As the crowd gave Al Pearson a standing ovation for his dedication to UND hockey, in true gentleman style Al Pearson tipped his hat back to thank them.

"He is a story to tell, and that will live on for a long time," said Joanna Pearson, referring to the future display of her father's hat.

UND beat Minnesota-Duluth 4-2.

Hodgson told the Pearsons that Al's standing ovation is probably the loudest the Ralph has been all season.

Matt Henson is an Emmy award-winning reporter/photographer/editor for WDAY. Prior to joining WDAY in 2019, Matt was the main anchor at WDAZ in Grand Forks for four years. He was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and attended college at Lyndon State College in northern Vermont, where he was recognized twice nationally, including first place, by the National Academy for Arts and Science for television production. Matt enjoys being a voice for the little guy. He focuses on crimes and courts and investigative stories. Just as often, he shares tear-jerking stories and stories of accomplishment. Matt enjoys traveling to small towns across North Dakota and Minnesota to share their stories. He can be reached at mhenson@wday.com and at 610-639-9215. When he's not at work (rare) Matt resides in Moorhead and enjoys spending time with his daughter, golfing and attending Bison and Sioux games.
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