One site appears to be frontrunner as UND hockey begins work on 2022 destination game
By the time tickets went on sale for the 2018 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game, UND and Ralph Engelstad Arena officials were privately pondering whether they undershot their projected interest level.
They booked the game for Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, a 7,500-seat venue off the strip, instead of the 17,500-seat T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights.
They were confident that it would sell out and be a success. But after watching roughly 8,000 UND fans show up for a destination game in New York City's Madison Square Garden against Boston College in December 2016 -- a month before tickets were set to go on sale for the Vegas game -- some wondered whether they could have sold out T-Mobile.
With everything already signed and booked, they stayed the course, determined to continue building the novelty of destination games, hoping to grow them to the point where they could guarantee sellouts in NHL-sized arenas.
They've now done that.
UND quickly sold out its 2020 destination game in Nashville's 17,159-seat Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL's Predators, for a game against Penn State.
While that event won't happen until Oct. 17, UND and Ralph Engelstad Arena officials are already beginning to work on putting together another destination game for 2022.
While it's still early in the process -- no venue has been booked, no date has been picked, no opponent has been selected -- there does appear to be a clear front-runner for a location at this point: a return to Las Vegas. Only this time, instead of playing at Orleans Arena, UND would do it big and play at T-Mobile, located adjacent to the strip.
UND and Ralph Engelstad Arena officials are beginning to explore that idea right now, multiple sources have told the Herald. A Las Vegas event developer was in Grand Forks last weekend for UND's series against Denver, getting a taste of UND hockey and its passionate fan base.
There's still a long way to go to make it a reality, but Las Vegas appears to be the No. 1 priority.
The 2018 game at Orleans Arena received rave reviews about all aspects except the size of the venue and that Orleans Hotel and Casino had trouble keeping up with the beer demand during the pregame party just outside of the arena.
UND beat rival Minnesota 3-1 and numerous fans cashed in at the sportsbook, which initially had the Gophers as heavy favorites .
UND and Ralph Engelstad Arena officials are hoping to schedule destination games every other year. They want to keep the event a novelty and not do it too often, so it maintains its uniqueness and high interest.
Fan base builds for destination games
UND first dabbled in the idea in 2012, playing a game against Clarkson in Bell MTS Place, home of the NHL's Winnipeg Jets. In 2013, UND played an outdoor game against Omaha at Omaha's T.D. Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. That event was put on by the Mavericks, but UND fans flooded the baseball venue for it.
In 2016, the Fighting Hawks beat Boston College 4-3 in Madison Square Garden in an event that exceeded UND's expectations and brought to light the potential of destination games. By the time UND played that game, the Las Vegas game in 2018 had already been booked.
Tickets for the Orleans Arena game went on sale a month after the Madison Square Garden event and sold out instantly.
The city of Las Vegas holds some significance for the program -- it is the home of benefactors Betty Engelstad and Kris Engelstad McGarry. They are the wife and daughter of the late Ralph Engelstad, a former UND goalie and Vegas developer who built UND's current $104-million arena.
When UND played Minnesota in Las Vegas in 2018, it warmed up in jerseys with Engelstad's name and number, 23, on the back.
It also is an attractive destination because of the abundance of flights and hotels.
UND continues to be the top-drawing college hockey program.
The Fighting Hawks lead the nation in attendance, averaging 11,273 fans per home game. Wisconsin is second at 10,840. Minnesota is third at 8,231, followed by Minnesota Duluth (6,098) and Penn State (5,961).
UND is on track to lead the nation in average home attendance for a sixth-straight season.
The program's success has helped that out.
UND won more games than any college hockey team during the decade of the 2010s, and it has kicked off the next decade in high gear. The Fighting Hawks are currently 23-3-3 and the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.