This is the first in a three part series celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Xcel Energy Center Opening.
June 23, 1998. Just 363 days after the NHL announced they were returning to Minnesota with an expansion franchise on June 25, 1997, four golden shovels stood ready to break ground on a new era in the City of St. Paul.
Then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Wild franchise founder Bob Naegele Jr. took their shovels and ran them into a patch of dirt outside the St. Paul Civic Center. The 25-year-old arena was about to be torn down and replaced with a new state of the art venue for Minnesota’s new hockey franchise, which had been named the Wild just six months previous.
“This is one small shovel of dirt for man, and this one great accomplishment for St. Paul and the state of Minnesota,” proclaimed Coleman at the ceremony.
Construction on the new arena, which would come to be known as Xcel Energy Center after a 25-year naming rights deal was reached, would begin immediately so the arena could be opened in September 2000 for the 2000-01 NHL season.
The cost of the arena was $170 million, which was going to be paid for by a combination of the team, the City of St. Paul, and the State of Minnesota. However, with the state and city picking up a large portion of the bill, the owner of the arena would be the City of St. Paul itself.
The arena, designed by what was then known as HOK (now Populous), was set to be 650,000 square feet with a capacity of 18,000 for hockey. It was going to feature four seating levels (lower, suite, club and upper) and a fifth level press box entirely for the media. Other features of the new arena were going to include: A transparent, glass exterior, four convenient atrium entrances to the arena, a large lower seating bowl with 9,000 seats, and an upper deck with opera style seating at the ends offering great sightlines.
With the Metrodome and Target Center as the other venues in Minnesota at the time, along with the memory of the now-demolished Met Center, the open and wide concourses were the big sell to the fans.
Jack Larson, Vice President and General Manager of Xcel Energy Center said that the concourse was his first big impression when he walked in the venue 20 years ago.
“The first thing I noticed was the open concourses where you can see into the arena (ice surface) rather than have to walk through a small walkway to get into the arena,” said Larson. “So you feel a part of the action as soon as you walk through the door.”
With the Wild trying to not replicate what happened to the North Stars and Met Center, getting their new arena right was the top priority. Little did they know, they were hitting a home run.
As construction moved along, other details of the Wild’s new arena were released. A state of the art video board that hung from center ice and a ribbon board that went fully around the facade of the suite level. Various clubs and restaurants on suite and club levels, as well as one for on-the-glass ticket holders.
The video board and ribbon boards were another point of emphasis for Larson.
“When the building first opened and when you walk into the arena what you saw was this large video board, it was so striking,” he said. “I don’t think we had ever seen one like that in Minnesota before. It was just so amazing to see that.”
In September of 2000, construction was finished, and at the end of the month, the doors would open for the Wild’s first-ever preseason game in the new arena. A nice final touch that fans got to see when the doors were opened: Each high school team’s hockey jersey hanging on the suite level, which overlooked the main concourse. A feature that became many fans’ instant favorite.
Sept. 29 was the Wild’s first preseason game, and then on Oct. 11 they played the Philadelphia Flyers in their first ever regular-season home game, which featured notable speakers like Bettman and Naegele. Chants rang about of ‘Norm Green Sucks!’ And of course, the infamous No. 1 sweater was retired in honor of the fans.
Minnesota native Darby Hendrickson would go on score the first goal that evening in a game that would end as a 3-3 tie. The first win would come just one week later in a 6-5 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While it was now being celebrated that Minnesota had the NHL back, it did so in a new arena that would stand the test of time.