Saturday, May 16, 2009

Some Shady Dealings in Grand Forks

One of the most fascinating things about North Dakota is the sheer distance between things there. Although I must admit before I start this, I have limited views into the psyche of the Flickertail State (no joke, that's straight from Wikipedia). My experience there consists of a wild two-day road trip from Ann Arbor to Grand Forks. Myself and several Daily folk — 4 other dudes, a Ford Taurus, and a cheap motel, not exactly roomy accommodations — were covering Michigan's 2006 NCAA Tournament game against North Dakota.

We had decided to drive through the night and arrive in Grand Forks late morning time so we could nap before the night's game. So we were cruising through Fargo around 9 a.m. when we made our final pit stop of the morning. I remember asking someone there how far it was to get to Grand Forks because at this point I was expecting some one-lane nothing road since I had never been in this state.

This person, sorry don't remember what he looked like, responded, "Oh, you're pretty close. Just up such and such highway a bit." For some reason after 80 miles of driving 90 mph, speeds that were understandable since we had just come 16-hours for a hockey game, I had this weird fixation on the fellow in the gas station who had told me we were "pretty close" even if it meant in the neighborhood of 55 more minutes of driving (let me know if my math is off here, I'm pretty sure that's how long 80 miles of 90 mph takes you). Call me obsessive, but Gettysburg is around 80 miles from Washington, D.C. I don't go around flinging ridiculous statements like, "Yeah, Gettysburg, just up the road," insinuating to random folk looking for answers that I'm a few exits away.

So how does this have anything to do with your life? Well, it seems this incident of peculiar North Dakotan behavior is not singular. See, I was reminded of this trip to North Dakota because Friday North Dakota's Board of Higher Education agreed to drop the Fighting Sioux nickname for the University of North Dakota after a decades-long squabble. And let me tell you, that weird, peculiar, and oddly fascinating misjudgement of distance that I think of from my only adventure into North Dakota was just the beginning. Maybe I'm just being a muckracking journalist, like one wise, yet wifed up amigo has suggested of late, but I think there might be something fishy going on in the state that produced ironcally zen-like characters such as Chuck Klosterman and Phil Jackson.

So why do I think this? Well, when we finally arrived in Grand Forks, we went to the home of North Dakota hockey, Ralph Engelstad Arena to pick up our credentials for the game that night. Now the week leading up to the tournament, the few journalist-types that follow Michigan hockey on a regular basis had been getting lectures from coach Red Berenson about how one summer on his annual road trip to his hometown of Saskatchewan, he stopped in Grand Forks and got a formal tour of this hockey palace. He opined about the "cherry wood chairs" and the "marble floors." So why is it a hockey palace? This official website describes it pretty succinctly.

All concourse floors are granite, each seat is constructed of leather and cherry wood, and there are 48 full luxury suites, two mini suites, and two enormous club rooms featuring the longest freestanding bars in the state. The training facility features a 10,000 sq. ft. weight room and underwater treadmill, fourteen locker rooms, the extra Olympic Sheet of Ice, and with the addition of the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center for the basketball and volleyball programs, what you have is more than a world-class facility; you have the Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Or better yet, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can show you what Berenson told Daily superstar H. Jose Bosch in a story right before we left for Grand Forks that year:

Yesterday morning, while talking to reporters, Berenson raved about Ralph Engelstad Arena, the location of the Wolverines' regional. He mentioned the imported leather lining every seat and the grand marble floors of the arena.

That's the lobby.

Here's the inside.

Here's the thing, though, and this has been written about extensively, but this palace of hockey was built from a $100+ million donation courtesy of Ralph Engelstad, and well, he's not a fan of people who want to get rid of the Fighting Sioux logo. In the meantime, this mecca of hockey is in the process of being built with his money when this Fighting Sioux mascot controversy starts heating up again. Well guess what? Engelstad decides he wants his Fighting Sioux mascot so badly that he wrote a letter to ND President Charles Kuptchella elucidating that he was willing to call off this construction right in the middle of things, even if it means throwing $35 million down the drain:

If the logo and slogan are not approved by the above-mentioned date, I will then write a letter on December 30, 2000, to all contractors and to everybody associated with the arena, canceling their construction contracts for the completion of the arena. I am a man of my word, and I will see to it that a settlement is made with all subcontractors, with anyone who has purchased prepaid advertising. I will refund money to all ticket holders and abandon the project. It would then be left up to you if you want to complete it, with money from wherever you may be able to find it. I have spent, as of this time, in excess of $35 million, which I will consider a bad investment, but I will take my lumps and walk away.

Remember, this is the type of ridiculously classy structure that — and I say this not intending to just pile on our brothers and sisters in North Dakota — just doesn't ordinarily get built in a place like North Dakota. And to just show that he meant business with this letter, Engelstad ensured that every friggin seat and nearly every wall in that joint had a big ol' Fighting Sioux logo on it, making possible renovation in the future a tricky proposition with the recent decision to get rid of the mascot.

But wait, it all gets so much better when you know just what kind of character this Engelstad fellow is.

His other claim to fame ...On April 20 in 1986 and 1988, Engelstad hosted parties to celebrate Adolf Hitler's birthday at his casino in Las Vegas which featured bartenders in T-shirts reading "Adolf Hitler — European tour 1939-45. The room he held the party in happened to be his casino's top secret Nazi memorabilia room.

Now you would think all this ugly business would be coming to an end now that the Board has finally just decided to get rid of the mascot and well, Ralph Engelstad died in 2002. So the threat of kickass Ralph Engelstad Arena going bye bye kind of ... ummm ... passed. Still, though, a state school's defining facility, and quite frankly the whole state's defining facility, is funded by a Nazi lover (for the record, he did apologize for his pro-Nazi ways). Even more cooky ... they've got a statue of the guy up in the lobby. I saw it myself.

Call me crazy, but all of this recent news about the mascot being retired and such suggests to me that things have calmed down in North Dakota. But no, nothing's that simple when you've got shadiness involved.

In a referendum last month, residents of the Spirit Lake reservation voted more than 2 to 1 to keep the nickname. However, the vote was not binding on the tribal council, and ... a similar referendum on the Standing Rock reservation could not force the tribal council to endorse the nickname.

American Indian backers of the nickname, who have been campaigning on the reservations to garner support for it, asked the Board of Higher Education before Thursday’s vote to back the nickname and logo. Many residents of both reservations take pride in “Fighting Sioux,” they said. Sam Dupris, a Cheyenne River Sioux Indian who was hired by the Ralph Engelstad Arena to lobby for the name, said most pressure to dump the logo came from “a handful of irresponsible and uninformed malcontents from the reservation.”

That's a little more weird. They got rid of the logo and the mascot even though nobody really wanted it gone? Or did they? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN NORTH DAKOTA? And so to bring this long winded post about the great state of North Dakota, I'll leave you with the explanation of the decision from the side that apparently wanted to do away with the Fighting Sioux mascot in the first place.

Terms gave the University of North Dakota permission to continue using the nickname and logo if the school could get approval from the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake tribes by November 2010.

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a fervent opponent of the nickname and logo, cheered the board's decision. "It's not an easy step," His Horse Is Thunder said. "And it is full of controversy. But I think every great step in this country was filled with controversy ... The civil rights movements in the '60s didn't happen with a whimper."

Honestly, I can't imagine what my reaction would be if I ever wrote a story and had to use the phrase "Ron His Horse is Thunder said." How could I not LOL right out of my chair. I totally respect Native American traditions and the odd, nature names are part of that, but you'd think that in the process of voting for chairman of a tribe the whole "if we let this guy speak for our tribe to the mainstream media, are people gonna take him seriously since his name isn't actually a name, it's more like a sentence?" conversation would have come up at some point.

Now as a sidenote on the memorable road trip to this mecca of hockey — and if you've come this far reading about North Dakota stuff I gotta get a plug of the stuff I actually write for a living in here — later that night I would witness the greatest college hockey upset of all time when Holy Cross beat Minnesota in the first round. I used this to my benefit earlier this fall when I met a dude who happened to be one of the better players on that Holy Cross team while watching a girl's field hockey game I was mercifully covering. We connected through our general disdain for girls' sports (he was there because his Mom and Dad coach the high school team together, which is what I wrote about that night. From talking to this guy, James "Bubba" Sixsmith, I learned he was currently toiling away in the minor leagues and I ended up writing what I consider a fairly interesting story based off that.

Making this one random excursion to the great state of North Dakota even more absurd was when we left the Ralph after picking up those credentials and falling into a stupor over the grandiose of what I must admit is probably the nicest arena I've ever stepped foot in, the Ford Taurus wasn't in mint condition anymore. Someone had hit n' run our car. The real kicker in all this ... we had literally parked in a basically empty arena lot. It was 5 or 6 hours before faceoff. Some North Dakotan had nailed the bumper of this poor Ford Taurus that had just endured a 16-hour marathon drive with five random dudes and he/she had done it when they could have parked an 18-wheeler lengthwise over 15 spots and still not come close to even scraping a car. Long story short, we called the ND campus police since this was a University of Michigan vehicle and none of us wanted to pay for the damage. We had a giant dent in this car and it was really annoying.

So there you have it, too many instances of weirdness relating to North Dakota to overlook. You've got the guy who somehow thought Fargo and Grand Forks are "pretty close," the Nazi loving millionaire, a tribe that elects a run-on sentence as its leader, and the worst parkers since a friend of mine in high school made his New Year's resolution was to execute every park job in one turn for a whole year.

As chance would have it, this guy is also a wise, yet wifed up amigo of mine (I'm hoping that line gives this a full circle feel, but I don't know if it worked so I added the extra parentheses for some real closure).

No comments: