MINNEAPOLIS — For 30 years, the Minnesota Gophers have leaned on a secret weapon of sorts, not a center or wing but the ice beneath their skates.
As the 2022-23 season winds up, so does the existence of the Olympic-sized ice sheet at Mariucci Arena. Larger rinks came into vogue following the 1980 Miracle on Ice gold medal performance by the U.S. Olympic team on a big sheet, and the U of M was one venue that followed the hot trend. The Gophers opted to install a sheet measuring 200 feet long by 100 feet wide, 15 feet wider than the traditional North American, NHL-sized ice surface.
That was in 1993. In the years following the U of M men's program took full advantage of the larger rink, recruiting players and building lineups whose speed and skill would allow them to utilize the extra space offered by the Olympic dimensions.
But there was a flip side to the trend. Hockey purists became disillusioned with larger rinks, saying they led to less scoring and less contact... two things hockey fans love.
Three decades later, many things are being downsized... including the Gophers' rink. In June of 2022 the U of M Board of Regents approved a plan for renovations at Mariucci and Ridder Arenas, one that includes installing a conventional NHL-sized rink for the men to skate on. By shrinking the size of the ice sheet, the program can add between 200 and 300 seats at Mariucci.
"I think it's going to be more exciting for the fans, you're going to have the same speed, you're going to have more plays complete," said Gopher All-American 81-year-old Lou Nanne.
As Nanne explained, there are several disadvantages to the Olympic sized rink.
"Everybody else that you’re playing, the majority of the teams as the years went by still had NHL size rinks so you were competing against people on other ice surfaces that you weren’t accustomed to playing to," explained Nanne.
The U of M says the new floor plan will impact every seating section in the main bowl at Mariucci, although some changes will be "minor." Each row will be renumbered (as will some seats), but the athletics department anticipates the view most season ticket holders will have for the upcoming 2023-24 season will be similar - if not the exact same - as they had this past season.
It is fitting that the last game to be played on the Olympic rink was Saturday night's track meet against the University of Michigan for the Big Ten title. The matchup was fast and amazingly skilled, allowing two of the most physically talented teams in college hockey to show their stuff. The Gophers lost 4-3 after two late goals by the Wolverines, but still managed to earn the top overall seed for the upcoming men's NCAA tourney.
Removal of the old rink and installation of the new boards and glass will begin shortly after the current hockey season wraps up. Crews will also upgrade the ice-making infrastructure at both Mariucci and Ridder.
For more on the changes that will soon be underway at Mariucci and how it affects seating for season ticket holders, check out a special U of M web page.
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