As a goalie for the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Hawks hockey team in 1948, Ralph Englestad was known for his loyalty, determination and strength of character.
As a staunch supporter of the team and university for half a century, and as a successful businessman, it was his goal to build a state-of-the-art hockey arena for his alma mater. The mission was accomplished in October 2001, when Englestad and his wife Betty fully financed the $110-million facility, donating it to the community.
The arena has led the nation in college hockey attendance for the last three years.
“The fact that the arena was a gift from an alum is a unique situation,” said Jody Hodgson, the Ralph’s general manager. “It was built for the UND men’s hockey program, and was very sports-specific in terms of its mission and goal.”
Although it’s not obvious from the upscale ambiance, which includes marble flooring with brass accents and padded leather seating with cherry wood armrests, there is no doubt the venue is hockey centric. Accommodating 11,634 for hockey seating, the facility includes two ice sheets—one NHL-sized and the other Olympic-sized. Player accolades grace the walls, with a listing of alumni who’ve made it to the NHL, a UND Athletics Hall of Fame on the upper concourse, a Traditions Area in the main lobby showcasing the history of UND’s hockey program and a UND Hockey Honor Wall with touchscreens that provide virtual tours of the team’s history.
“UND’s hockey team is the priority, but we hold approximately 120 other events a year, including concerts, family shows, community events and youth and amateur hockey games,” said Hodgson.
Elton John, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Dane Cook, Sugarland and Cirque de Soleil have appeared at the venue. Major sporting events, such as the 2006 NCAA West Regional Hockey finals, 2005 World Junior Hockey Championships and 2008 World Men’s Curling Championships, also were held at the Ralph. This year, the facility will play host to the 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation U18 Men’s World Championship. Ticketmaster has handled ticketing for the last 15 years.
The Ralph’s amenities also are more high-end than is typical for a hockey arena, with more than 80 points of sale from the in-house food and beverage program.
“The diversified menu is one of our great successes, with dishes that include carved prime rib sandwiches, Asian wraps and a pork loin meal,” said Hodgson.
Its labor arrangement with area charitable groups also is unconventional.
Up to 45 volunteers from area churches, schools and community groups handle post event cleaning and food and beverage service in exchange for a donation to their organization. To date, the Ralph has donated $150,000 to these charities.
“Our biggest challenge is the market size,” said Hodgson. “Grand Forks is a relatively small market geographically and tucked away in the northernmost part of the country, so it can be difficult to build our event calendar.”
Along with being a member of the Venue Coalition, the Ralph partners with event promoters and producers to attract big names to Grand Forks, with the goal to create relationships with clients for a lifetime, rather than for a single night or one event. 
“It is our mission to continue to fulfill Mr. Englestad’s vision to use the building as an economic engine for both the university and the community,” said Hodgson.