By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
When Zach Palmquist was being recruited to play hockey at Minnesota State, he took his official visit on Jan. 30, 2009. The Verizon Wireless Center was packed with an all-time high 5,201 fans that night, and the Mavericks beat the Minnesota Gophers 6-2.
Before Saturday night, Palmquist, now a sophomore defenseman for MSU, said he had never seen another Mankato crowd like that one.
The Mavericks beat Minnesota 5-3 on Saturday before a crowd of 4,854 fans, the largest attendance figure since Palmquist joined the team and the first official sellout at The Cell since the 2009-10 season.
In fact, it was just the third official sellout since that game Palmquist attended when he was a senior at South St. Paul High School and was trying to decide on his playing future.
Saturday’s game certainly had a different feel to it than many other games over the last four seasons. Besides the standing-room-only crowd, the pep band returned to the arena for the first time in several years — and sounded great, by the way — and a new, private-party lounge-like area called the Big Bobber Ice House (named for Minnesota State’s annual ice fishing fundraiser) was unveiled in the ice-level open area under the student section.
Add to that students filling the south-end horseshoe seats for the first time in several games, and the atmosphere was a reminder that MSU games are capable of having that feel that makes the sport of college hockey so great.
The Cell has had that aura at times over the last 13 years, but keeping it consistent has been a problem. By the end of last season, the arena was often cold and cavernous, and it was eventually decided that big changes had to be made.
One of those changes, of course, was at the head-coaching position, and Mike Hastings’ hiring certainly created enough buzz to start bringing people back.
Making some tweaks in the gameday experience, like getting the band back together, was a nice touch, too.
Of course, nothing brings out the fans like winning does, and the Mavericks did their part on Saturday night by playing their finest game so far this young season and knocking off the No. 2 Gophers.
The win over mighty Minnesota was the much-needed ingredient in the rebuilding recipe — of both a team and its fan base.
The win was big because it’s easy to sell tickets when the Gophers are in town. Only a blizzard kept the last two home games with Minnesota from being sellouts.
Getting big crowds to come out and see the Mavericks — no matter who they’re playing — is the next step, especially with the conference changes on the horizon.
So we’ll see how it carries over, whether it’s to see Minnesota State take on No. 3 Denver this Friday and Saturday, as well as Bemidji State and Alaska Anchorage, who come to town in early December.
“I think this place can be an intimidating arena when it’s full,” Hastings said Saturday. “I thought tonight was a perfect example of what our environment can be.”
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.