Fifteen years ago an early Christmas present was delivered to the campus of the University of North Dakota. Gathered with university officials, alumni and student athletes were the governor, city leaders and state legislators.
These officials had been together many times over the past year and a half as they grappled with the aftermath of destruction and change the devastating Red River flood of April 1997 had forced upon Grand Forks and the surrounding area. The historic announcement they were about to hear would help shape the future of their community.
On December 17, 1998, Ralph Engelstad, a 1954 UND graduate and former goalie for the Fighting Sioux hockey team, announced that he was donating $100 million to build “the finest hockey facility in the country.” Engelstad, a Thief River Falls, Minnesota native, played hockey through college and briefly in a semi-pro team in Sacramento, California.
In the 1960s he and his wife, Betty, a native of East Grand Forks, relocated the construction company he began in Grand Forks to Las Vegas. He became a multi-millionaire through investments in properties such as the Imperial Palace Hotel, owning a Las Vegas hockey team and the city’s Thunderbird Airport. At the time of his announcement Forbes magazine had estimated his net worth at $400 million.
“Life is full of ups and downs, and in business and personally I have experienced both,” Engelstad said to those gathered that day. “But I’ve been very fortunate to land on the upper side more times than on the bottom. It is my desire to share a portion of my good fortune with the UND Hockey Team.”
At the time of the announcement, Engelstad’s was one of the largest private gifts given to a university or college in the United States. Between 1967 and 1998, there had been only 18 $100-million-plus private gifts to higher education. His tied for ninth place in a national ranking of those gifts. To put it in perspective in North Dakota at the time, it represented one-fourth of the money the state had budgeted for higher education in its current biennium.
‘Ivy League look’
The new hockey arena was to be built on 50 acres just north of campus on Columbia Road, near the School of Medicine. Over the next few months, project updates reported that architect Bill Schoen of Grand Forks was designing the building to feature an “Ivy League” look, and it would seat almost 12,000 for hockey while providing premier center ice seats for UND students.
Right from the start, Engelstad’s knowledge of construction and his intention to be a very “hands-on” manager of the project became evident when he took a group, including the architects and university officials, on a tour of other hockey venues across the country.
They visited Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California; Phillips Arena in Atlanta; Xcel Energy in St. Paul and the Pepsi Center in Denver. Rather than reinvent the wheel, they looked to incorporate the best of the other great venues, asking the managers of each one, “If you could do it over again, what would you keep and what would you do differently?”This exercise paid off with design elements incorporated from many of them.
Chris Semrau is the director of events and marketing at The Ralph, the arena’s nickname, and has been there since 2000, beginning his job a year and a half before it opened in October 2001. His initial responsibilities were to secure sponsors, schedule events and sell suites.
He describes the opening of the arena, “a life experience I will never forget. Our focus was to make Ralph and Betty’s wishes come true – to give a competitive advantage to the UND Hockey program and to provide an economic engine for the region. We were successful in both of those missions.”
Today, as it was then, Semrau says it is hard to describe the reaction of people who visit it for the first time. “You just have to see it to believe it.”
Arena’s finish and class endure
He says one of the greatest features of The Ralph is “the level of finish and class at which it was done. Ralph wanted to give a great first impression, and this is accomplished with imported granite floors and countertops, brass and brick in the lobby, and every seat padded in leather with cherrywood armrests with cup holder.”
At the ice level, Semrau describes the amenities for both the men’s and women’s hockey teams as “second to none, with a 10,000-square-foot weight room and a rehab center that has a cold tub and a hot tub with an underwater treadmill.” Add to this a first-rate player lounge and underground parking for visiting team buses.
Today, nearly 13 years later, Semrau says, “The Ralph has held up remarkably well, mostly because of the high quality of its original construction. It is still modern, cutting edge and clean, and stands apart from similar arenas in the country.”
While many venues look at a major facelift after 10-plus years, Semrau says The Ralph has only had a few modifications. “Technology has always been the largest hurdle for keeping up with, and we decided to upgrade four screens on the center-hung video board two years ago.”
In August 2004, an $8.3 million addition was built on to The Ralph to provide UND Athletics with a modern venue for the basketball and volleyball teams. The Ralph Engelstad Arena funded this arena, which is named in honor Ralph’s wife, Betty Engelstad, and known as “The Betty.”
Semrau says the main purpose of the arena is to support its university tenants, but other events are held there, such as banquets, receptions, concerts, tournaments and family shows. In October, the arena announced it had surpassed an attendance milestone of 5 million event guests, which included attendance at such large events as the 2005 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, an Andy Roddick vs. Andre Agassi Tennis exhibition in 2004, and the World Men’s Curling Championships in 2008.
Major concerts have included Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Sugarland, Brad Paisley, Dane Cook, Miranda Lambert, Cirque du Soleil, and Tim McGraw. The Elton John concert in April 2012 drew the largest crowd to the arena, with an attendance of over 11,000.
The college hockey games fill the arena, as well. During the 2012-13 school year, UND was the only NCAA Division I men’s hockey team in the country to average more than 10,000 fans per home game. It led the NCAA in attendance, averaging 11,592 in its 21 home games, and with 12 of those games played before sellout crowds.
“We are fortunate to have the most passionate fan base in college hockey,” says Semrau. “It is our hope that the facility continues to provide the hockey purist with an overall first class experience.“
‘How lucky are we, really?’
The “good fortune” that Ralph Engelstad wanted to share with the UND Hockey team has resonated far beyond the blue lines of the ice rink. The impact of the Ralph Engelstad Arena has been felt throughout the University of North Dakota, the Grand Forks region, and across North Dakota. Among those observing this impact the closest is men’s hockey coach Dave Hakstol.
“The gift of Ralph and Betty Engelstad which resulted in this state-of-the-art arena has had an immeasurable impact on The University of North Dakota men’s hockey program, “ Hakstol says. “The recruiting impact has been a major one and the developmental facilities for players are the best in the world, not to mention the in-game fan experience which is the best in all of college hockey.”
Julie Rygg, the executive director of the Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the impact The Ralph has had on tourism in Grand Forks is hard to calculate.
“On hockey weekends it’s amazing to see all the cars from out of town filled with people who stay at our hotels and eat at our restaurants. Other events there also bring in people from around the world.”
An attraction in and of itself
The building alone is an attraction in and of itself, she says. “People in town for conferences or other events want to schedule tours as part of their schedule.” Rygg, a Grand Forks native, has been with the CVB for the past 11 years.
She returned to the area as it was rebuilding from the 1997 flood. “Having The Ralph built here and the Alerus Center also opening at about the same time have made a great impact on the vitality of this area. They have helped us become the poster child on how a community can recover from a national disaster.”
A model for other philanthropic gifts
Tim O’Keefe, the executive director of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, played hockey for UND from 1967 to 1971 and was present when Engelstad announced his gift 15 years ago. In his current position, he has seen up close what this gift has meant.
“Every time I drive past that arena there isn’t a time I don’t pinch myself with gratitude at what we have here on campus,” says O’Keefe. “The Ralph has become very well known in the country, and also in the international hockey world.” O’Keefe says that along with the increased stature of the university’s hockey program, it has provided a boost for economic activity in Grand Forks.
“And, from the point of view of alumni, it is a source of great pride that Grand Forks and UND are part of the great philanthropic story of the Engelstad family. This story is unparalleled in the history of this area.”
The University just completed a capital campaign that raised more than $300 million. “It was three times larger than any other campaign in higher education in North Dakota,” says O’Keefe. “And, it was kicked off by the Engelstad Family Foundation with another gift, this time $20 million. To date the family has given $125 million to the university.”
He said the historic gift Engelstad announced 15 years ago created a model for many other philanthropic gifts to the University. “It also created a shift in the philanthropic culture at UND today. I know it opened the eyes of other donors, and Ralph inspired them to step up and support the University. We often talk about the gratitude we feel for him. With season ticket holders from 35 states, these games provide an enormous reach for UND and the work we do with alumni.”
In the “old barn,” the original arena where O’Keefe played hockey, the games drew die-hard hockey fans. Today, he says the new arena has created an “event,” with food and suites and entertainment. “Many come for the hockey, but others come for the sake of being at an event,” says O’Keefe.
“I remember so well being at the press conference that day 15 years ago. As great as it was, I don’t think anyone could have forecast what the impact would be to Grand Forks and the university. It’s in a world of its own. Here in North Dakota we tend to undermarket who we are and what we have,” says O’Keefe. “But how lucky are we, really?”
Remembering Ralph Engelstad
Throughout The Ralph, the man who gave “a portion of his fortune” to build the arena that bears his name is remembered in many ways. A bronze statue of Engelstad as a hockey player stands in the lobby. His two favorite quotes hang above the main doors – “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” and “No dreams come true until you get up and go to work.” Images of him as a businessman and hockey player are among the many photographs that adorn the walls.
Tour guides show off the rare 1926 Belgian T. Mortier pipe organ that Engelstad had restored and installed in the south side lounge. And, they point out many of the 2,000 “Fighting Sioux” logos that are imbedded in granite and carpeting throughout the building – which remain, even after the University dropped the “Fighting Sioux” nickname in a dispute with the NCAA a few years ago.
But, there were few at the university who knew Engelstad as long or as well as did Earl Strinden, the executive director of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation from 1974 to 2000. Any gift of the historic nature that Engelstad gave to the University of North Dakota requires some shepherding, and Strinden was one university official who was at Engelstad’s side from the time of the gift announcement to the completion of the arena.
Now retired from the university and still living in Grand Forks, Strinden continues to serve on the board of the separate corporation that manages the arena. Strinden had known him since the 1950s, when they were both Grand Forks businessmen – he at his family’s hardware store and Engelstad his construction company. Later, the traditional annual gathering of alumni began meeting at Engelstad’s Imperial Palace Hotel in Las Vegas.
As the person responsible for encouraging private giving to UND, Strinden and his staff kept in contact with the Engelstads. “We built a relationship, but we never pushed him for a gift. We were ready to help him fulfill his vision when he was ready to do it,” says Strinden. Strinden recalls a conversation he had with the Engelstads when they were together at the NCAA Tournament in early 1997, the year the UND Fighting Sioux men’s hockey team won the Final Four tournament in Milwaukee. “I mentioned to him that of all the graduates of UND who have become successes in business, he was one who could make a historic major donation to the university.”
It wasn’t long after that conversation that Strinden said Engelstad started asking for more information about the University and its budget. Engelstad had developed many investments in Las Vegas and had built a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. He also was a generous donor to his hometown of Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Yet, Strinden described him as “a very private man who didn’t have much of an interest in social status. Many came to him for major donations, but he was hard to reach. His loyalty was here.”
In November 1998 Engelstad contacted Strinden and then-UND President Tom Clifford about the gift he wanted to give to the university. Within a month, they were meeting with Engelstad’s legal, financial and tax experts to arrange the gift. On December 10, Engelstad wrote a letter to then-Governor Ed Schafer about his gift. It was announced a week later.
Strinden and Clifford were among those who toured the other hockey arenas in the country with Engelstad early in 1999. It was a sign of how involved he would be in the construction. “He had the vision and knew more than anyone else about construction,” Strinden recalls. “He was involved in every detail, and knew when a bid was too high.
He also had cameras installed atop the nearby UND Medical School building so he could watch the construction progress from in his office in Las Vegas.” Three years after the gift was announced and two years after construction began, the arena opened to the public. Engelstad died the next year, on November 26, 2002, at the age of 72.
Strinden believes there is no way to measure the real impact of this gift to the university and the state. “We continue to work to make it a premiere venue, one of the best in the world. And, after all these years, I am still thrilled when I am in it. Sometimes I see people drive up in out-of-state cars and I visit with them. They tell me they have made a detour from their travel route to tour the arena.” It has been a wonderful opportunity to be involved in this project, says Strinden. “It has added so much to my life.”