UMD-Minnesota game marked Arena era

The drive from the Curling Club on London Road to the new Duluth Arena on Harbor Drive was a short one in 1966. Yet the step forward for Minnesota Duluth and the city's hockey community was almost incalculable. When the $6.5 million rink opened f...

The drive from the Curling Club on London Road to the new Duluth Arena on Harbor Drive was a short one in 1966.

Yet the step forward for Minnesota Duluth and the city's hockey community was almost incalculable.

When the $6.5 million rink opened for its first game Nov. 19 -- with UMD meeting Minnesota -- a new era began for a hockey-happy town. The fledgling Division I Bulldogs left their former home behind.

"The Curling Club had its rustic charm, but the Arena was a jewel and it marked Duluth's coming of age," said Duluth native Pat Francisco, 61, a UMD senior winger in 1966-67. "It was the classy finished product of an effort between the city and UMD. The city adopted our team."

The game against Minnesota, which opened the season, was attended by a sellout crowd of 5,700. The Bulldogs put on a dazzling display with an 8-1 victory to start just their second year in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.


To no one's surprise, the most dazzling skater was UMD senior center Keith "Huffer" Christiansen of Fort Frances, Ontario, and International Falls, who had six assists, still a school single-game record.

"We were new to the league, but now we had a new rink and we wanted to show we belonged," said Christiansen, 62, UMD's captain at the time and now a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. "The excitement of our crowd in what was then the best rink in the league made it a special night."

There had been an intrastate buildup to the game as first-year Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor prepared his team for a new experience. He said at the time he wasn't sure what to expect as he saw the Arena rink being flooded that Saturday afternoon for a game that night, following Friday's Christmas City of the North Parade.

"I had a feeling that we'd come out for the game and find nothing but a pool of water," Sonmor said then. "From what I've heard, Christiansen can walk on water, but we don't have anybody who can."

It had already been quite a week. Gemini 12 astronaut Buzz Aldrin set a world record by taking a two-hour spacewalk that Sunday, and Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge received lights for the first time that Thursday to complete a $21,000 project.

UMD Provost Raymond Darland dropped a ceremonial gold puck between Christiansen and Gopher defenseman Jim Branch at the Arena before the 8 p.m. game. Coach Ralph Romano's crew then had an inspired performance with three goals in the first six minutes on a night when the script couldn't have been written any better for the home team.

"Coming from the Curling Club, we thought we had gone to the Taj Mahal," said Proctor native Bob Bell, 60, a senior winger that season. "We had such high hopes, but were the obvious underdogs. It was one of those nights when everything fell into place and, as usual, Huffer led the way. It was a stepping stone for our program."

UMD, stocked with players primarily from the Northland, got two goals each from Francisco, Rick Newell, Bruce McLeod and Tom Mrozik. Dave LeBlanc of Fort William, Ontario, was in goal.


News Tribune writer and Duluth native John Gilbert wrote at the time: "Barring a collapse of the new Arena's plush roof, there was no way that Saturday night's game could help being the biggest sports attraction to hit Duluth in anyone's memory."

Seventy former UMD players were on hand for the historic game. Ten from the 1966-67 team, including former UMD coach Mike Sertich, are expected for a Saturday ceremony at the DECC after the first period to celebrate the 40th anniversary as the Bulldogs and Gophers meet again. The opening game of the series is 7:07 p.m. today.

"What I remember most from that first game is what a moment it was for Ralph (Romano) and his family," said McLeod, 59, a sophomore winger from Fort Frances at the time. "He really carried the Arena project on his shoulders and the first night was a wonderful experience for all of us."

Among those attending Saturday will be Christiansen, a salesman for Kolar Auto World in Duluth; Francisco, a financial adviser in Duluth; and Bell, a remodeling contractor in Duluth, who all have season tickets; and McLeod, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association commissioner, who lives in Denver. Romano died in 1983, while Sonmor, 77, now does radio commentary for University of Minnesota games and will be at the DECC. UMD throwback jerseys and concession-stand popcorn prices from 1966 will also help set the scene.

More than 800 games have been played at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, built on the site of a former scrapyard.. Saturday, though, may mark one of the rink's last anniversaries. Expected funding from the Minnesota Legislature in 2007 will complete plans for a new $55 million rink to be built in the parking lot parallel to the present DECC. It would be open for the 2009-10 season.

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