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Q&A with Ralph Engelstad Arena's Jody Hodgson on UND's hockey game in Las Vegas

Hodgson says he 'absolutely' plans to put on another destination game in the future.

NCAA Men's Hockey 2022: Arizona State v North Dakota OCT 29
UND and Arizona State face off in the 2022 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game in T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, October 29, 2022.
Russell Hons / UND athletics
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GRAND FORKS — UND pulled off another destination hockey game last weekend, playing Arizona State on the Las Vegas Strip.

UND has previously played games in Winnipeg, New York City, Las Vegas and Nashville. But this was the biggest event to date, drawing 16,505 fans for the game at T-Mobile Arena.

Ralph Engelstad Arena general manager Jody Hodgson, who leads these destination games and the events surrounding them, spoke to the Herald this week about the Vegas event.

Q. What is the relationship between UND and Ralph Engelstad Arena in putting on these games?

A. We take the risk on it with the financial side and then we are the producer of the event. At the end of the day, we contract the venues, produce the event in the other community and work with UND athletics, the UND Foundation and the institution to try and make sure we have everything covered and we have a comprehensive and complete weekend of activities.

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Q. How far in advance of these games do you guys start working on them?

A. I would say it's a two- or three-year lead time. You have to make sure to secure the venues. This time we had the arena, a practice facility, a golf course, Fremont Street, hotel contracts. . . we had a contract signing party one day, so you can contract with everybody at the same time.

Q. What parts of these events would surprise fans to learn how time consuming and challenging they are?

A. It would probably be things like elements of in-venue game operations, venue operations, hotel operations. Hotel sounds easy, but it's things like finalizing rooming lists, placement of rooms. . . we wanted to make sure we kept our guys in a quiet part of the hotel, that we separated the two teams, that we had meeting rooms for team meals that could be exclusive all day and night so they can have three meals a day in their meeting rooms. Things like that take time.

At the venue, it's trying to move into the venue in 24 to 48 hours and successfully complete an event. It's a lot of things like, 'Where are we going to put video drops so assistant coaches can capture video for reviews? Where do we capture video for director of hockey ops' game tape? What views and feeds are available?'

There are things you don't think about. Right before the game, Erik Martinson noticed the nets didn't have water-bottle holders for the goalies. We couldn't use the NHL nets, because those have the cameras in them (and the NHL didn't want to risk damage to them in a non-NHL game). So, we used another set of nets and they hadn't transferred the water-bottle holders. We couldn't have goalies put the water bottles on top of the nets, because it could get in the way of the overhead cameras. There are a lot of things like that. The two most-harried hours are the two hours before puck drop.

All the details have to get figured out and talked about. It's time consuming and takes a lot of involvement from a lot of different people to pull it all together.

Q. You guys have done two Las Vegas games now — 2018 at Orleans Arena and 2022 at T-Mobile Arena. What were some of the big differences between the two?

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A. I think our event has become more comprehensive now. We did a Thursday Night Hockey Hub, a sold-out golf tournament Friday, we had our hockey alumni reception, we had our Fremont Street event. I think the event has grown now to be more of a comprehensive series of events over a weekend. The Orleans event was a more simple event plan. But it was much more challenging to create the hockey event in a venue where they hadn't done so in a number of years. The hockey part at T-Mobile was easy. They have a great crew there — great dashers, great glass, great ice surface, great Zamboni drivers.

Q. How challenging was it to do an event at a venue where hockey is not usually played like Orleans?

A. I got to Orleans on Monday the week before the event. They were outside pressure washing the Zamboni. I walked up to the guy — he didn't know I was with the event — and I said, 'Hey, what you doing?' He goes, 'I'm cleaning her up! We haven't used this thing in a long time and we have a hockey game this weekend.' I walked back into the building and thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'

Q. What feedback did you hear from fans about this year's event?

A. The main thing I've heard is people liked the informal nature of the events. They enjoyed having a gathering spot Thursday. I heard people really enjoyed the golf event. We had a full 144 people — two foursomes on each hole. And we had a very inclusive event on Fremont. The Wild Horse (Nashville pregame party) was different because we had a capacity limitation of 2,000. It was a ticketed event, so it wasn't open and available to all. I heard people really liked Fremont because it was open and accessible to everyone. They also liked the fact that everything other than Fremont and golf was walkable. Our hotel block with MGM Resorts at the end of the strip was fairly easy walking distance to everything.

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UND fans gather on Fremont Street in Las Vegas on Oct. 28, 2022.
Brad E. Schlossman / Grand Forks Herald

Q. How much sleep do you get per night during these events?

A. It's not just me. It's our whole group. I'd bet we were clipping along at about three or four hours a night.

Q. Is the event profitable?

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A. It is. They (destination games) have been. It's a great collaboration between The Ralph and UND athletics. We split the net profits from the event. At the end of the year, The Ralph also makes a net income allocation to UND athletics. I think everybody wins. We take the risk. As a private entity, we can take the risk and make deposits on artists, venues and sign contracts and do all those things. I think it's a very mutually interdependent relationship. We couldn't do it without the UND program and fan base. We're able to provide the entrepreneurial framework that allows it to happen.

Q. Will you do another destination game?

A. For sure. Absolutely.

Q. Why?

A. I think it's become a huge part of UND, UND athletics and the UND hockey program. I'm absolutely sold on the ability of the event to develop our fan base, enhance our relationship with our fans and grow our brand nationally from a recruiting standpoint.

It's a fantastic recruiting tool. If you want to be a hockey player that plays in the biggest environments, the biggest cities, the biggest stages in games that matter, this is a great way to do it. It provides an unmatched student-athlete life experience. One of the reasons kids are going to college is to have a great life experience. This provides an opportunity for our student-athletes to participate in something that's unmatched in college hockey.

From a branding standpoint for the university, I stood on The Strip and our logo was all over the major resort casino video boards. Look at the awareness and branding that comes with that. I think the events have become a special part of what the North Dakota hockey program is. I think people look forward to them, have grown to embrace them and I think we'll certainly want to keep doing them and growing them.

Q. We know, for sure, there won't be a destination game the next two years. When and where might the next one be?

A. I don't know the answer to either one. I would say we've had some real preliminary discussions lately and we'll continue to work on it. I think there's a balance. We don't want to burn people out. We think there's some merit to spacing them out. We do think there is a tipping point or a limit as to how often we can do it and how much we can ask of fans. There will be two regionals in Fargo the next couple of years — 2023 and 2025. There are the Frozen Faceoffs in St. Paul. Hopefully, we're lucky enough to progress in national tournaments.

The other thing we're aware of is that we want to continue to generate an economic impact in our own community and put people in hotels, restaurants and bars in Grand Forks. Next year, we'll have the Ice Breaker here. We think that's important to have a little balance and still be doing big events at home and in our community.

Q. Is there anything else I didn't ask you or that you'd like to say about the event?

A. I'd like to say thank you. We're grateful you guys travel. These events wouldn't work if nobody went. The only reason they work is because people make the decision to travel, participate and support the program like they do. I don't care who is putting it on or what the event plan is, if there aren't people there to support it and participate, it wouldn't happen.

I stood there on Fremont Street at the side of the stage that night, looking out at the crowd, and I kept saying, 'Are you kidding me? Look at this. Look at all these people. Are you kidding me?' That's special to me. It's those shared experiences in life when everyone is together. I was standing next to the Las Vegas Events guys who do sporting events there. They were saying the same thing. 'Are you kidding me?' They were blown away, too, by the support and people's affinity to the program and love of the hockey program.

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UND fans gather on Fremont Street in Las Vegas on Oct. 28, 2022.
Brad E. Schlossman / Grand Forks Herald

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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