Would North Dakota be able to support a minor league hockey team?

The University of North Dakota draws the highest crowds in NCAA D-1 men's ice hockey. The team got higher crowds than every AHL and ECHL team this past season.
St. Cloud State men's hockey freshman Jack Reimann plays defense Jan. 19 against North Dakota at the
St. Cloud State men's hockey freshman Jack Reimann plays defense Jan. 19 against North Dakota at the / Reid Glenn / USA TODAY NETWORK

The college hockey season has winded down and one stat stood out to us more than any other. The University of North Dakota drew over 11,500 fans per game on average. That’s higher than any AHL or ECHL team.

The only minor league team that had an average attendance exceeding 10,000 this season was the Cleveland Monsters, the Columbus Blue Jackets AHL affiliate.

Yes, most of those fans are students but with impressive numbers like that is it so far-fetched to think North Dakota could support a minor-league hockey team?

The NHL reportedly considered the University of North Dakota’s home rink as a potential bubble site for the 2020 NHL playoffs.

North Dakota could absolutely support a minor league hockey team

The state lacks any pro men's sports teams affiliated with the four major leagues as a minor league affiliate. North Dakota does have a major junior team with the Fargo Force of the USHL. The Fargo Force averages 3,500 fans per game.

What city specifically would be best for a minor league team? Even if the team brands itself statewide as “North Dakota”, they’re going to need one home city and home area.

The three largest cities in North Dakota are Fargo, Bismarck, and Grand Forks. Fargo is already home to the aforementioned Fargo Force. Grand Forks is the home to the University of North Dakota.

Assuming a potential team wouldn’t be sharing the on-ice spotlight with the Force or UND, that leaves us with Bismarck.

The state capital did have success as being home to an NBA G-League team from 2006-2012 called the “Dakota Wizards”. Their former home, the Bismarck Event Center, seems like a good fit for a minor league hockey team with a seating capacity of just over 10,000.

In addition to the Wizards, the Bismarck Civic Center has hosted arena football teams and the Bismarck Bobcats junior hockey team of the NAHL from 1997-1998.

If Bismarck Civic Center was once suitable for ice hockey, it most likely could be made suitable for ice hockey once again. The tier II junior team still exists in Bismarck, put plays at the much smaller VFW Sports Center.

If having the Force was a deal breaker to putting a team in Fargo, what about having the Bisons in Bismarck?

Outside of those top three cities, no city in North Dakota has a population of over 50,000. Two of the state’s largest cities, Fargo and Grand Forks share Metropolitan areas with neighboring state Minnesota.

Maybe that’s the reason hockey teams (UND and the Fargo Force) can exist in those markets. Don’t forget that students going to a game for their school is different than fans buying tickets, so that “10,000 capacity” number can’t be easily translated, or expected, from another non-UND team.

Just look at the attendance difference between UND and the Force. It would be an interesting endeavor to put a minor league hockey team in North Dakota, but there are too many economic unknowns to make it a worthwhile investment.