No matter your connection to Duluth -- lifelong city dweller or summer visitor -- it was impossible not to notice the massive structure rising from the ground along the waterfront these past 15 months.
The DECC expansion has gone so long -- more than three years of lobbying and planning followed by the construction phase -- that the 12 miles of drilled pilings and 18 tons of steel themselves seemed to become part of the cityscape.
But finally, where we once had only a parking lot and an artist's rendering of arena grandeur, we now have Amsoil Arena, a 6,764-seat facility and the centerpiece of an $80 million overall DECC expansion project that also includes a skywalk extension and parking ramp.
In the WCHA arena hierarchy, Minnesota Duluth's hockey home instantly jumps from oldest to newest. And though it's not huge or showy in the overall realm of sports facilities, Amsoil Arena's grand opening this week marks a historic moment for Duluth.
"In the world of sports arenas, this is a relatively small project. But in this community, it's a huge deal," said Brian Morse, the project's lead architect working for SJA Architects of Duluth. "This is a lot more special than our other projects, especially because of the visibility of it. It's not off in some corner of the city or something. It's right there, out front for everybody to see."
In 1966, the DECC opened for business with a slogan ("Hello World") and a lineup of lineup of luminaries including Vice President Hubert Humphrey and entertainer Buddy Hackett. Amsoil Arena's opening needs no formalities. Bulldog hockey is riding high (the men are ranked No. 4 in the country; the women No. 5), and the facility makes a bold statement all by itself.
Bright and spacious, it possesses all the amenities of a 21st-century sports facility and is adorned with artistic splashes showcasing northern Minnesota's landscape and native materials. And with an eye toward energy efficiency, the DECC put a sharp focus on green strategies to achieve LEED certification.
"This arena is cutting-edge in every way," said Kevin Dalager, a senior project manager for Mortenson Construction, the lead contractor for the Amsoil project as well as the construction of TCF Bank Stadium and Target Field projects in the Twin Cities. "The DECC is a good facility for a lot of things, but not a great facility for any one thing. This is a great hockey facility."
In October, as the final sections of maroon and gold seats were fastened down, Dalager, the site manager in the Duluth project, promised Amsoil Arena would stand up against any college hockey rink in the country, with the possible exception of the privately built palatial arena in Grand Forks, N.D. "A building like Englestad Arena will never happen again, but this building runs a close second to that."
The "wow" factor
DECC officials worked hard to ensure fans are swept up in the grandeur of the building as soon as they walk in.
A new skywalk link connects the extended parking ramp to the arena, leading you into what designers call the "Ice Cube." With soft mood lighting and an aquatic-themed terrazzo floor, the second-level commons area evokes images of Lake Superior.
Traveling from one level to another, you can look through glass walls and see the downtown skyline in one direction and the Duluth Harbor in the other.
The open-bowl design preserves a view of the game when you're walking the concourse or standing in line for a beverage and a slice of pizza.
Impossible to miss is the 8-foot-by-14-foot matrix scoreboard hung above center ice, which will provide in-game replays in
10-millimeter LED display.
Also new to Duluth are luxury suites -- 15 of them, offering private food and beverage service and HD flat-screen monitors.
DECC Executive Director Dan Russell said his team drew motivation from a challenge most cities don't encounter -- an existing, functional arena with a proven track record and four decades of memories.
"The overwhelming challenge was building something the community would be happy with," Russell said. "If you're building in a community that's never had a facility like the one we have, you can't fail. But when you're building within 20 feet from an existing facility, you run the risk of setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment."
The time had come
Traditionalists who will long for Bulldog hockey in its former home and those who question the wisdom of spending $80 million to build an arena within earshot of a functioning one may very well be in a small minority.
Perhaps no one has fonder memories of the old DECC than Bill Watson, whose three-year stint at UMD brought a Hobey Baker Award and led to a career in the National Hockey League. Watson said Duluth had reached time for a change.
"If you look around the league, it was more than time for a new arena -- it was probably time about 10 years ago," Watson said. "The new rink just has so much more in terms of amenities and sightlines and replay for fans. That's a huge factor in making the move."
Watson, who lives in Duluth and is a financial representative for Northwestern Mutual, selected his season-ticket seats in October. He promised that any lingering reluctance to move out of a paid-for, well-kept arena will quickly fade.
"If anyone in the community doesn't understand why this needed to happen, all they have to do is walk into the new building, and within 15 minutes they'll understand," Watson said.
Amsoil Arena's seating capacity of 6,764 is an increase of just more than 1,600 seats for UMD games. Yet Duluth's new arena is only sixth-largest in the
12-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association. And for concerts, capacity can reach 9,264, still below the 10,000 mark that, as some believe, is required to lure top-echelon entertainers.
But the intimate approach was by design. DECC officials say they'll be perfectly happy if they can fill the 6,700 seats consistently, and as for concerts, they insist date availability -- rather than large seating capacity -- is the primary factor in bringing in big-name acts.
"Now we'll be able to have a big-name entertainer performing the same night as a hockey game," Russell said.
In taking a modest approach to size and seating, planners were careful not to shortchange the viewer experience.
Whereas the old arena has 15 women's bathroom stalls, Amsoil has 68. Not only does the concourse offer a direct view to the ice, it is four feet wider than the DECC Arena concourse, allowing spectators faster access around the rim of the building. There are wider seats, more legroom between them and more concessions points. You may even see a 1,000-foot laker enter the harbor as you make your way to your seat.
"People have gotten a lot smarter about sightlines and the overall viewing experience," Dalager said. "There are no bad seats in this building. And once you leave your seat, with an open concourse, now you're still part of the action and part of the game."
Early in the planning discussions, DECC officials made it clear that fans would know they were watching an event in Duluth. So the design scheme included Northland accoutrements in almost every nook and cranny.
Quotes from well-known Northlanders -- including Bob Dylan, former Bulldog coach Mike Sertich and the News Tribune's Sam Cook -- are affixed on the walls of the concourse. Reclaimed wood from the former Globe Elevator site in Superior and processed by Duluth Timber was turned into benches that sit along the concourse.
And in the members-only Bulldog Club, patrons can belly up to a bar made of Iron Range taconite and look up at a wall of cracked glass made to look like Lake Superior's frozen surface.
"We wanted to avoid the log cabin look, but we also wanted to make reference that we are in northern Minnesota," said Morse, who recalls work shifts that stretched into the next morning as he and his team labored under tight deadlines.
Though Amsoil Arena also will host concerts and conventions, it is unquestionably home of the Bulldogs. Generous splashes of maroon and gold, frequent use of the Bulldog logo and a large student section on the south end of the ice provide a strong home-ice ambiance.
"One of the things people on campus worried about is will people feel like they're at UMD event or are they just a tenant at the arena," said Greg Fox, vice chancellor for finance and operations at UMD. "That is absolutely not a concern. When you go in, it feels like you're on campus ... you're at UMD."
There was also a stroke of luck involved in making the arena a true Northland project. After failing to secure state funding in consecutive years, the arena finally was included in the bonding bill in 2008, by which time the country was headlong into a recession. But that became an advantage during the bidding process, and the DECC selected mostly local contractors at favorable pricing.
"And we ended up with their A teams," Russell said. "We were a priority for most of those contractors, and it allowed us to add some amenities we otherwise wouldn't have."
On Nov. 22, UMD men's and women's captains skated in the arena for the first time. After all the work that went in, Morse made sure not to miss the ceremonial christening of the ice.
"I wanted to be down there when the skates hit the ice," he said. "The DECC people had seen it. The ticket-holders had seen it. But the players hadn't seen it yet. This project was about fan amenities, too, but it's really it's a hockey facility. "When the pucks start slappin' against the glass, it's a pretty cool thing to hear."