FROZEN FINAL LIVE | North Dakota fans came to play, too
That is what 19-year-old Niesha Ness said out front Amalie Arena in Tampa during the hours leading up to Saturday night’s championship game between her beloved Fighting Hawks — they prefer Sioux — and Quinnipiac.
Indeed, Tampa has been a home away from home this week for North Dakota hockey fans, who celebrated the eighth national championship in school history after UND's 5-1 victory against Quinnipiac.
With highs in the mid-70s — it was 27 degrees Saturday morning in Grand Forks — the adjacent river walk outside the arena, nearby beaches and fellow Fighting Hawks fans it is safe to say this was not a party the UND faithful crashed, but one they created.
Depending on who you talk to, whether UND trainers, a cheerleader, or any number of assembled fanatics enjoying an adult beverage at Fergs across the street from the arena, there were as many as 12,000 fans cheering on the Fighting Hawks. That helps explain Saturday night's attendance of 19,358, the third largest for an NCAA men's hockey championship game.
Many of them are like Ness, who have known nothing else.
“Ever since I knew what hockey was I have been a fan,” said Ness, who traveled with her parents, John and Jennifer, from St Cloud, Minn. and is saving up to attend UND. “I have always wanted to go to UND even before I knew it was a school.”
Now that’s a diehard!
The Ness’ travel three hours one way to see their team in action. While that sounds like a hefty investment, especially often in sub-zero temps that are not uncommon during hockey winters, well, it goes with the territory.
“That is what we are about and we love this,” said John, who took the family to last year’s Frozen Four in Boston. “It is what we do and we don’t want to give it up.”
Richard Schaffer (above) certainly did not give up his passion for UND hockey.
After attending UND and ultimately living in Grand Forks for 32 years he retired to Fort Myers, Fla., about a two-hour drive south of Tampa, four years ago. Don’t think for a minute that his passion has wilted with the heat in the Sunshine State.
“You bet I took the green with me,” said Schaffer, who endured a 10-year waiting list before becoming a season ticket holder his last 22 years in Grand Forks. “Going to the games you become friends with other fans, you get to know the players and that kind of thing. It is easy to get enthusiastic about North Dakota hockey.”
The husband-and-wife team of Russ and Rachel Pollock now live Colorado Springs, but they experienced that enthusiasm first hand while working at Ralph Engelstad Arena for two of the six years that the military had taken the couple to Grand Forks. Originally from Michigan, they nonetheless got all wrapped up in UND hockey.
“I started following them a year before I was stationed there,” said Russ, who has made trips to Denver and Minneapolis to see the Fighting Hawks and along with Rachel brought daughters Audrey, 7, and Starla, 5, to Tampa. “We have been diehards ever since. In Grand Forks pretty much all we had was North Dakota hockey. It is like a family thing up there. It is the place to go, the place to be and we have followed them on the road.”
Todd Berning is an alum of North Dakota State University and has always been a big hockey fan who has now traveled to 11 of the last 12 Frozen Fours. During a career in facilities management he spent five years as general manager of The Ralph.
During this Frozen Four weekend he was with sons Keenan and Landen with all three (above) decked out in their UND jerseys and referred to the following as “a cult.” They are suite holders at The Ralph who live and breathe it.
“North Dakota hockey is just a smaller scale of Alabama football,” said 21-year-old Landen, who attends UND. “It like the same type of a thing as ’Bama does not have pro sports teams and that is what that whole state grasps onto.”
And much like the passion for football in Alabama and other parts of SEC country the fans of North Dakota hockey cannot get enough.
“The attendance shows it and they have sold out forever,” said Todd of the familiar 11,404 at home games. “The suite list is forever long and they keep raising the price, but people love it.”
And the players love them. Frozen Four semifinal losses the past two years lit a fire for UND players, and their fiercely loyal followers fanned the flames, so to speak.
"You know this trophy's bigger than just for our team," sophomore goalie Cam Johnson said. "It's for the whole community, for the whole North Dakota community."
Contributing: Mike Bambach
Photos by Tom Layberger: Jennifer, John and Niesha Ness (above); Richard Schaffer (middle); Keenan, Todd and Landen Berning (below).