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New Wild season brings changes to arena’s off-ice environment

Palmer Harbison, the only organist in Minnesota Wild history, shows off his new toy in his new location high above the Xcel Energy Center ice. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

New Wild season brings changes to arena’s off-ice environment

Tonight marks home opener No. 15 for the Minnesota Wild in the Taj Mahockey known as Xcel Energy Center and the dawn of each new season is accompanied by change. The Wild’s roster sees annual tweaks, coaches have come and gone, uniforms get updated and concession offerings will vary.

Recently, dazzling pre-game light and video shows with the ice serving as the canvas have entertained and energized the Minnesota faithful as never before.

While the Wild’s roster is virtually the same as it was in May and coach Mike Yeo returns for his fourth season, it doesn’t mean fans making their first trip to the ‘X’ this season won’t experience a few new things.

In fact, they won’t even get through the gate before it hits them. More on that later, however.

Organ transplant

Zamboni organ

Palmer Harbison’s familiar former home.

For 14 seasons Wild organist Palmer Harbison has entertained a generation of Minnesota hockey fans seated behind his zamboni-themed organ from his perch high above the arena’s playing surface.

While Harbison’s mission to engage the masses through song remains unchanged, his vantage point and instrument do not.

Gone is the familiar zamboni organ, which is sure to disappoint many fans young and old, but the reality is it was never really an organ at all. The zamboni was merely a decorative shell housing a fairly pedestrian, and musically-limited, synthesizer.

Harbison said he’s been given a hard time over the years, particularly by media members, for his inability to match the sound of a fairly famous organ with the roughly $1500 Korg Extreme (circa 2003).

“I couldn’t make it sound like the Blackhawks’ [organ] because it’s not the same instrument,” Harbison said. “I can no more get the sound of a one-hundred thousand dollar theater organ from that synthesizer than I can pull your boat with a smart car.

“It’s fine, it did the job, but this is what they wanted to ‘make it sound like the Blackhawks’.”

The ‘this’ Harbison referred to is the Lowrey Imperial, a hybrid of classic organ design and modern amenities with its glossy Oak cabinet, 640 x 240 LCD touch-sensitive screen and multi-colored buttons on its cockpit-like control panel.

Acquired by the team via a sponsorship arrangement with Schmitt Music, the Lowrey Imperial is everything its predecessor was not in providing a robust, elegant sound reminiscent of a pipe organ.

“That’s what the Wild has been looking for,” said Harbison who has missed just four home games in franchise history. “The organ is still here, it’s still the same thing, it’s just new and improved.”

Until this season, Harbison, founder and owner of Minnetonka-based Advanced Control Systems Design, Inc. by day, could always be found on the corner platform looking down over the Minnesota bench. Wild mascot Nordy, and his/her/its drum-beating exploits, will now occupy that spot.

Harbison and his new instrument are now situated kitty-corner across the arena on the Fox Sports North platform adjacent to the press box. Presumably, his future interactions with the media will be of a more positive nature.

Touch free entry

This season Xcel Energy Center joins a growing list of major venues employing the use of walk-through metal detectors at all entrances. It’s part of an NHL-wide effort to provide fans with a smoother, faster screening environment.

“Providing a secure environment has always been our top priority and we fully support this new league-wide initiative,” Matt Majka, chief operating officer of the Minnesota Wild said at the time of the announcement. “The introduction of walk-through metal detectors will allow us to provide a more efficient screening process for our fans and contribute to a more consistent entry experience.”

Jackets, shoes, belts, keys, watches or coins will not have to be removed, but cell phones and cameras must be set in designated bins before passing through the metal detectors. Gates will now open 75 minutes prior to game time to to allow fans to adjust to the new process.

Previously, only arena employees and non-profit volunteers were subject to the hands-free search through a single device. Now everyone, even media, must pass through the electronic gateways located throughout the building.

A Wild fan passes through one of the arena's new walk-through metal detectors prior to the team's Sept. 27 preseason game against the Winnipeg Jets. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

A Wild fan passes through one of the arena’s new walk-through metal detectors prior to the team’s Sept. 27 preseason game against the Winnipeg Jets. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

Xcel Energy Center General Manager Jack Larson said he and his staff put a lot of time and effort into developing a plan they felt worked best to get people in the building with as little inconvenience as possible.

The new procedures were in place throughout the preseason giving security staff and arena executives an opportunity to put the system through test runs with the smaller exhibition game crowds.

“That helped us a little bit getting familiar with the new equipment and procedures for everybody coming in,” Larson said. “It was a very good test run for us.”

Larson said he and his staff observed each gate and listened to those who had suggestions and made tweaks based on that data throughout the preseason. He added the feedback has been mostly positive.

“When we did the open scrimmage (on Sept. 19), we had the walk-throughs in place, but not manned,” Larson said. “People were, on their own, just taking their phones out and putting them on the tables and walking through.

“I think people are sort of getting familiar with them at the sports facilities around the area and I think they feel comfortable with them now.”

First-class seat upgrades

A project to replace all of the arena’s seats is well underway with the lower bowl replacement expected to be completed by tonight’s home opener. Completion of the remainder of the building’s seats is expected to be achieved in early 2016.

Kathy Ross, the Wild’s Senior Director of Strategic Communications said it is a significant upgrade from what fans have experienced to this point.

“The seats visibly don’t look that much different in terms of color or fabric,” Ross said. “But the seat quality itself has been improved to a premium.”

Additional Xcel Energy Center updates include a significant Wi-Fi upgrade along with the installation of a new concourse display system called Stadium Vision. The system is designed to provide fans roaming the concourse with better access to the game while sharing news, stats and scores from around the league.

Some of the technology upgrades were completed in May so some fans may have experienced them already, but they will be new for many fans this season.

Minnesota Hockey Magazine Executive Editor Brian Halverson is a former member of the Minnesota Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. His work has been published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Miami Herald, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Hartford Courant, Dallas Morning News and

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