DECC Arena: Good to the last drop

Ten members of the Christiansen family will sit together at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center today and Saturday to witness the end of an era.

First game at the DECC
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). This image is part of a commemorative print to be handed out to the first 3,000 fans at tonight's game. (Photo courtesy of UMD)

Ten members of the Christiansen family will sit together at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center today and Saturday to witness the end of an era.

Keith "Huffer" Christiansen, who provided the dazzle in Minnesota Duluth's first hockey game at the complex on Nov. 19, 1966, will join his wife, two children and their spouses, and four grandchildren in cheering the Bulldogs in their final games in the rink.

A glittering $6.1 million Duluth Arena-Auditorium opened on the waterfront 45 years ago. It was a significant step up in the hockey world from UMD's previous home, the Duluth Curling Club on London Road, already 53 years old in 1966. The Curling Club seated 1,900 fans in frigid conditions while the Duluth Arena accommodated 5,600 in plush surroundings.

"We went from the Curling Club, not exactly a palace, to the classiest rink in the WCHA," said Christiansen, a senior center from Fort Frances, Ontario, in 1966-67. "There's not a bad seat in the building, even in the top row, and you're so close, you get a real feel for the game. Right now it's got to be the nicest 45-year-old rink in the country."

The top-ranked Bulldogs (11-1-2) take on No. 10 Denver (10-4-2) in a 7:07 p.m. clash for Western Collegiate Hockey Association supremacy, an intriguing farewell to a still-serviceable building. The UMD men's and women's teams are moving next door to the new $80 million Amsoil Arena, which debuts Dec. 30 with a game between the UMD men and North Dakota.


The 1966 hockey opening marked UMD's second season in the WCHA, and the Bulldogs celebrated with an 8-1 victory over Minnesota in front of an overflow crowd of 5,700. Christiansen had six assists, still a team single-game record, tied by defenseman Curt Giles in 1977.

Christiansen's linemates, Bruce McLeod and Pat Francisco, each had two goals. McLeod said it was an exhilarating night, but he didn't appreciate the importance of the Duluth Arena until years later as he stayed in the school's athletic department, ultimately spending 14 years as athletic director through 1996.

"I understood the new rink was important to (coach) Ralph Romano, but having that building ultimately changed the way people in the area related to UMD," said McLeod, 63, who lives in Denver and is commissioner of the WCHA. "They came downtown to watch games and it became the thing to do. I've often thought about what life in Duluth would've been without the Arena-Auditorium."

Christiansen, 66, has lived in Duluth much of the time since his college days, except when with the 1972 U.S. Olympic team and the World Hockey Association's Minnesota Fighting Saints in 1972-74, and works in sales at Kolar Chevrolet. He's a UMD season ticket holder and rarely misses a home game.

"I think we surprised everyone, even ourselves, in the first game at the DECC. We were so excited and then everything went right," said Christiansen.

John Gilbert grew up in Duluth and was covering UMD hockey for the News Tribune in 1966. He had witnessed 10 days of pomp and circumstance in August as the Arena-Auditorium was dedicated. There were daily tours, luncheons, banquets, nightly music (including the Beach Boys) and celebrities and minor-celebrities including Lorne Greene, Buddy Hackett and Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey. The official theme of the opening was "Hello World."

"This new palatial building, with a view of the Aerial Bridge, brought the city into the 20th century. It was a source of civic pride," said Gilbert, 68, who wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 30 years and now splits time between Duluth and Minneapolis and writes for the WCHA website. "It was an absolutely magnificent edifice at the time and still has so much color and charisma."

It served as a beacon for generations of hockey players in the Northland, like Derek Plante of Cloquet and Brett Larson of Duluth. They played in high school section championships at the DECC and were teammates on UMD's 1993 WCHA championship team, and are now UMD assistant coaches.


"I sat outside UMD's locker room when I was a squirt at Merritt and waited for (UMD forward) Dan Fishback to give me a wooden Sherwood stick," Larson, 38, said this week. "He wore No. 18 and that's the number I used for the rest of the time I played."

Mike Sertich, who grew up in Virginia, plans to be at Saturday's game and will leave the rink with a one-of-a-kind DECC resume. He was UMD's head coach for 18 years through 2000 and was behind the bench for some of the program's best teams. He was also a UMD defenseman, playing in the DECC's first game, and an opposing head coach in the building while with Michigan Tech from 2000-2003.

Sertich, 63, had a UMD-best 335 wins.

"There are so many good things that happened for our program at the DECC," said Sertich, who lives near Island Lake, and is in his first season as a St. Scholastica assistant coach. "I don't remember all the big moments vividly, but one that's stuck with me is Bill Watson chipping the puck out of the zone in the final seconds to clinch a (9-8) total-goals win over Clarkson in 1984. That got us to the Frozen Four for the first time. That was surreal."

Watson, from Powerview, Manitoba, recorded a program-best 109 points that season, finished with 210 in three years and played in 115 NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks. He remained in Duluth, works as a financial consultant and is a UMD volunteer assistant coach. Some of his best memories will remain at the DECC, including an NCAA quarterfinal series win over Harvard in 1985 in his final season.

"That UMD team was more complete than any team I played on," said Watson, 46, the 1985 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner and a member of UMD's All-DECC team to be honored after Saturday's game. "Sometimes, when I look at this season's team and how well they play, I smile because I'm reminded of those 1980s teams."

Scott Sandelin skated at the DECC as a Hibbing High School and North Dakota defenseman, and has the second-longest tenure as a UMD coach, in his 11th season. He says he'll miss the rink which has the smallest ice surface in the WCHA (190 feet long by 85 feet wide), which has made the DECC a challenge for opponents. The farewell series versus Denver is an appropriate finish, he says.

"It couldn't have worked out any better. We'll have two of the best teams in our league playing in a great hockey atmosphere," said Sandelin, 46, who has been behind the bench for 95 home wins, including 6-0 this season.


Dale "Hogie" Haagenson already has had quite a week at the DECC. He was feted at a 50th birthday party Monday at Paulucci Hall and will be on the UMD bench this weekend as the hockey program's longest-serving employee. He was added to the staff in 1981-82 by coach Gus Hendrickson and has been on hand ever since for practices and games to tape sticks, fill water bottles, pick up pucks, make coffee and be a friend to hundreds of players.

"This is a sad time, because I'm going to miss the old rink," said Haagenson, native of Babbitt. "But next week we go to the new rink and I can't wait to get there."

First, the school will lower the retired jerseys of Christiansen (9) and Brett Hull (29) from the rafters Saturday night, give a final salute and then look to a new era.

1984 celebration at the DECC
UMD men's hockey coach Mike Sertich rides on the shoulders of his players after they beat Wisconsin to clinch the WCHA championship on Feb. 18, 1984, at the Duluth Arena, now part of the DECC. As a UMD player, he played in the first game at the Arena. (Jack Rendulich / News Tribune file photo)

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