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50 years of the DECC: For UMD hockey, Duluth Arena was big step to the big time

University of Minnesota Duluth Provost Raymond Darland (center) performs the ceremonial drop of the puck at the first hockey game played at the Duluth Arena, now part of the DECC, on Nov. 19, 1966. The players are UMD’s Huffer Christiansen (left) and Jim Branch of Minnesota (right). (Photo courtesy of UMD)1 / 2
Jay Jackson, the Maroon Loon, skates with UMD and New Hampshire hockey players on Nov. 17, 1985. (News Tribune file photo)2 / 2

Pat Francisco remembers that first season the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs hockey team played in the new Duluth Arena, 50 years ago.

But he especially remembers that first game on a Friday night in November.

"It was magical. It was the same night as the Christmas City of the North Parade. We have the University of Minnesota in town. It's the first game at this spectacular new facility. And as I'm driving down from my parents' house in West Duluth, I remember all the lights and all the people," said Francisco, who was a senior forward and captain on that 1966-67 UMD team.

The Duluth Arena opening in 1966 wasn't just a showplace for the city. It was a pillar in UMD's rise into national hockey prominence. It was built, in large part, to be the home of the Bulldogs. Other events — from boat shows and concerts to circuses — were collateral entertainment when UMD wasn't on the ice.

Out was the old Duluth Curling Club on London Road, built in the previous century with only 2,000 seats for hockey fans. The locker rooms were spartan and tiny. ("Our big locker room renovation was a new 10-penny nail to hang your gear on," Francisco quipped.) The rink wasn't regulation. (The place was demolished in 1985.)

In was the $6.5 million Arena which, by comparison, was a palace. There was room for more than 5,300 fans (on padded chairs, not wooden benches) and great sight lines to the ice with six locker rooms and a regulation (at the time) ice sheet.

"It was really one of the first big steps we made into big-time college hockey," Francisco said of the Arena.

The first of those steps was UMD moving from Division III to Division I in 1961. The second step was joining the premier Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 1965.

"But moving into the DECC was huge," Francisco added. "It was one of the nicest arenas in the league at that time."

This was before the NHL expansion, when American kids simply didn't play in pro hockey, so big-time college hockey was the dream of high school players in the Northland. Playing in the Arena — against legendary teams like Michigan, North Dakota, Denver and Minnesota — was a dream come true for Francisco.

The Arena not only allowed more UMD fans to watch the games (that first game drew a standing-room-only sellout of more than 5,700 people), but it also helped attract young players. It was much easier for UMD to recruit high school-age players from far-flung places (often western Canada at the time) when the prospects got to tour the Arena on recruiting visits, Francisco said. And, during the next 44 years, it helped encourage some star Iron Range and Duluth players to stay home and play for UMD.

The same is now being said for Amsoil Arena, which replaced the old Arena at the end of 2010 as the home for Bulldog men's and women's hockey. Amsoil's modern look and high-end feel, especially the locker rooms and player amenities, has become a selling point for UMD recruiters, as has the atmosphere on big game nights with 7,000 fans packed inside. (The old Arena is still used for hockey tournaments, skating exhibitions, conventions, shows and rallies.)

Ben Wolfe was a sophomore on that UMD team in 1966. But because the NCAA didn't allow freshmen to play varsity sports at that time, the first game at the Arena was also his first as a Bulldog.

"The place was rocking. As a (Duluth) East kid who grew up playing games outdoors, or in the Curling Club, the Arena seemed like the Taj Mahal,'' Wolfe said. "It's like Amsoil is right now. It (the Arena) gave people a whole new reason to come to Duluth."

Francisco and Wolfe vividly recall the Arena crowd chanting "Kill, Benjie, Kill!'' that night. It was a clarion call for Wolfe to display his toughness on the ice.

"I did enjoy being physical on the ice back then,'' said Wolfe, a big man on the ice who, with some irony, ended up in the Peace Corps after college and spent a career as a grief counselor quietly helping people in need.

Wolfe went on to set a UMD and Duluth Arena record that has yet to be broken: He broke his leg on the Arena ice three times in 12 months in his junior and then senior year, twice while playing the Gophers. The third break ended his hockey career.

Back on that first night in that first UMD game at the Arena, Francisco had a good game, scoring two goals. His linemate Bruce McLeod (who later became WCHA commissioner) also scored two goals.

But Bulldog star Keith "Huffer" Christiansen "was on fire,'' amassing six points in one game, still a Bulldog record. The underdog Bulldogs beat their cross-state rival Gophers 8-1 to christen the new Arena.

There was joy in the Zenith City.

"Who has six points in one game? Huffer did it against the Gophers that night,'' Francisco said with a grin. "That was a great night for UMD, for Duluth."

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