While my main focus as a blogger is the Minnesota Wild, the real focus of Hockey Day Minnesota in my opinion is the lower levels of the game and they especially feature the state's proud tradition of High School Hockey. No other state can really boast the fanatic love for High School hockey like Minnesota can. The east has its collection of Prep schools and there are a few isolated pockets here and there but none of them hold a match to Minnesota. My hometown of Elk River is no different. Its high school hockey stars are the athletic heroes for so many young players in these communities where hockey rules the roost. I think that is one thing maybe people outside Minnesota don't understand. While the typical mythos that is commonly portrayed by professional sports about how young kids dream to play in the NHL someday and hold the Stanley Cup above their heads I'd dare say that is not what most kids in Minnesota think. I think for many of them; especially those that live in towns where hockey is king. The dream is about playing for your local high school team and about a magical journey that has you and the fellow players you grew up playing with going to St. Paul to play in the State High School Tournament. I think on rare occasions you might pretend in your mind you're playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, but I think your real goal is to someday put on your school's sweater and become one of those local athletic heroes you looked up to for so long.
For myself, while I try to cover most of the events of the day, its the stage that high school hockey gets placed is what sets it apart from the other hockey 'spectacles' out there. You know, the Winter Classics, the Hockey City Classics, and the NHL's new (and lame) Stadium Series idea that to me are all threatening to oversaturate the idea and possibly strangle the novelty out of future events. In my opinion Hockey Day Minnesota is basically immune to it, because it makes the small town connection and reminds us of the game's roots. The place where so many of us, learned to skate and learned to play the game. Luckily for me, Hockey Day Minnesota decided to come to my hometown and put on the event in the place where I first learned how to skate and how to shoot a puck. So what was that experience like?
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I will warn you ahead of time. I will share a little personal information, as well as a little bit about the experience of it all just for the sake of journalistic honesty and for you to understand what the experience was like viewing hockey in 'the Pit.' I will mention the games themselves; some in brief summary (the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton vs. Rochester Lourdes game and the Elk River Elks-Girls vs. Anoka Tornadoes game) and one more at length (Elk River Elks-Boys vs. Stillwater Ponies). I am talking about the Boys game at length, not for any slight of the other games other than the fact I did not personally attend them so it would be unfair to elaborate on them with the same level of detail. So without further adieu.
Getting ready to go view hockey in 'the Pit' meant going to the game with the understanding I'd likely be standing for at least 3 hours with a limited amount of movement. In fact once we got to the game, fans were officially discouraged from leaving the bleachers so as not to block out the camera and spectator views of the game. Hearing the conditions were going to be in the low 20's, I decided to not wear a winter coat but simply dress in layers, topping off my upper body with a Ryan Suter Wild jersey and a Tweed fedora from Land's End I purchased just for the occasion. I wore boots and two layers of socks as well as some hunting glove / choppers and off to the game site we went.
After parking in a church lot fairly close to Handke School (where I went to Elementary school for a time back in the day) my family and I headed over to 'the Pit.' After presenting our tickets we walked through the gate and got the traditional game mark; a simple "x" marked on the hand in case we ever decided to leave and return later. Nothing unusual so far, but as we made our way towards the stairs built in the 1940's by the National Youth Administration, we saw a bunch of older Elk River Hockey player alumni meeting and greeting one another before they too headed down to meet up with the current team to lead them out to the ice as sort of an 'honor guard'. With them was former NHL'er Joel Otto, a Stanley Cup winner with the Calgary Flames back in 1989. His picture of drinking champagne from the Stanley Cup can be seen when you walk into the Elk River Arena. It was at this moment I teased my dad about the Joel Otto hockey card that he still hadn't gotten signed even though I bought it when I was 12 years old (I'm 35 now). Joel had just recently got back from coaching in a Junior Hockey Top Prospects which featured highly touted youngsters of Canadian Major Junior hockey in a game where he was member of Team Orr's coaching staff that won 4-3 over Team Cherry. My dad (who is a decent friend of Joel's dad) said he'd still get it signed and we both laughed.
Just as we started to make our way down the stone steps and into the pit, a Wild prospect happened to walk right on by. It was Grand Rapids' Avery Peterson. At first I was a bit surprised, as its a Saturday and just about every weekend teams have games to play and the senior who is one of the top scorers in the state should probably be somewhere else. He looked a bit taller than the 6'2" he's listed at but sure enough it was him, and I would guess he wanted to see how Hockey Day Minnesota looked in Elk River compared to Grand Rapids where Hockey Day Minnesota was hosted last year. Grand Rapids plays in Section 7AA with Elk River, and perhaps he decided it was a good opportunity to scout them a bit.
We made our way down to bottom of 'the Pit' where some adult league teams were enjoying some ice time between high school games. We found some space in the aluminum bleachers, carefully moved up as high as we could and took our spots near the Elk River (East) side of the rink. The bleachers were quite slippery, maybe even worse than ice as you could slip and fall even if you were being pretty careful. I don't think there would really be anyway to avoid that, but just something to keep in mind in case you ever think of going yourself and they have a similar set up. Also, on that note. Good luck to whoever has to host it next because Elk River is going to be damn difficult to beat in terms of the number of potential seats, organization etc.
When I first heard it was going to be held in Elk River, beyond the excitement of it coming to my hometown I also feared it could be a complete mess with the fact its in an older part of town with residential streets. There just are not a lot of places to park but Elk River was way ahead of the game and they shuttled people in on busses from the high school as well as a few local churches (who also did their best to be extra hospitable by offering their own chili dinners as well as a place to warm up if need be) doing the same and as far as I could tell the traffic was not any kind of problem at all. Everyone that was there was super nice and friendly. The attention to detail was very evident. They had volunteers constantly try to shovel the old stone stairs to try to keep them from being inundated with snow that was coming off of people's boots and being packed down into ice. They had concessions and a few little firepits people could go to if they needed to get warm. Kids were all over the place; enjoying sledding, making snow puppies and just the simple fun of being outside to say nothing of the hockey going on.
So now for the games...
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 4, Rochester Lourdes 1 ~ I watched most of this game on TV until about a 1/3 of the way into the 3rd period before making my way to 'the Pit' to watch the Elks' game. Right from the drop of the puck Rochester Lourdes, smaller and faster was really flying all over the ice and initially Cloquet seemed to be struggling with the Eagles' speed. Lourdes was controlling most of the play early, forcing the Lumberjacks to ice the puck. Yet even though the Eagles were dictating the pace of the game throughout the first two periods the frustrating part was the fact that both clubs were trying to play an indoor style game on the outdoor ice. One thing I've learned watching so many of these outdoor games is that the ice conditions outside and the snow buildup really makes playing the pass-centered game particularly difficult if not altogether unfeasible. Passes just do not travel as quickly nor as accurately so a well-intended pass often becomes a pointless turnover. As the game went on, Cloquet started to adjust to Rochester's speed and both clubs were trading rushes back up the ice. Lourdes started to find itself under siege and luckily for them goaltender Jack Burkel was on top of his game making a number of terrific saves. Lourdes seemed to get tired out and the chances started to pile up for the Lumberjacks. Burkel continued to be a rock; keeping the game knotted at 0-0 through the first two periods. Rochester Lourdes Head Coach Josh Spaniol would then make a controversial decision to swap out Jack Burkel with Aaron Van Galder. The game would finally break open in the 3rd when Rochester Lourdes Peter Alexander ripped a snap shot by Zackery Strom to make it 1-0 Eagles. Cloquet, really started to pour it on and its forechecking pressure would yield some penalties. The first one was a tripping penalty by Tyler Vehrenkamp. Cloquet would not wait long to light the lamp on the power play as they scored just about 20 seconds in as Koby Bender fed a pass out to the point where Ryan Lind blasted a slap shot from the point that beat Van Galder to tie the game at 1-1. The Lumberjacks could sense blood in the water and they continued to swarm all over the Rochester Lourdes' zone and the penalty woes mounted for the Eagles as Nick Roth was sent to the box for tripping. Cloquet's power play did not strike nearly as fast but their persistance wore down the Eagles' defense, to where Van Galder would make a great stop on a shot by Dylan Johnson but Van Galder was now caught out of position and wasn't able to get back to stop Jack Kuhlman's rebound chance as Cloquet now held a 2-1 lead. You could see it in the body language of the Eagles after Kuhlman's goal, they were beat and Cloquet kept up the pressure and they'd bury another goal 3 minutes later as James Newgren tapped home a rebound off another Dylan Johnson shot to make it 3-1. Lourdes simply did not have any pushback and Cloquet was content to defend its lead and wait for the Eagles to make a mistake. Cloquet would add one last goal as Newgren finished off a 2-on-1 with Bender to seal a 4-1 victory.
Elk River (Boys) 4, Stillwater 1 ~ After a quick dropping of the puck ceremony attended by former Elk River and Bemidji State star Joel Otto and former Elk River hockey coach Dave Blehyl and a quick "Let's Play Hockey" from Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton it was time to get down to business for the marquee high school game between 8th ranked Elk River and unranked Stillwater. In the 1st period I really felt Stillwater dominated much of the play due to the simple fact they kept their game pretty simple. Work the puck in deep, send in at least 2 forechecker and try to force turnovers in the offensive zone that they could pounce on. Mac Berglove found himself busy right away but he was pretty sharp in the early going. Elk River, when it was able to break out of the zone was trying to work its normal set of passes to get its offense going and the outdoor ice did a fair job of neutralizing such attempts. The Ponies were having reasonable success with a fairly simple and straight forward tactic, racing down along the boards deep into the Elk River zone where they would either fire a shot on goal or direct a puck towards the crease or slot and hope one of its trailing forwards could bang home a goal from in close. The post bailed out Berglove a few times, but really he was keeping Elk River, who looked a bit timid at first, in the game. Elk River's best chance in the 1st period came off blocked shot from the point that turned into a breakaway for their leading scorer Jake Jaremko. Jaremko would turn on the jets where he tried to made a little forehand to backhand deke that was stonewalled by a nice save by Josh Benson. Elk River would strike late in the period as a late line change gave Grant Bunker some room behind the Ponies' defense and he'd skate into the Stillwater zone and blast a slap shot by Benson to give the Elks a 1-0 lead. It was a rocket of a slap shot. Stillwater was throwing its weight around and Elk River had to make quicker decisions with the puck and adjust to the Ponies aggressive style and even though the Elks were being out chanced and out shot it was still a 1-0 game. The Elks would speed up their game a bit in the 2nd period, and they would strike early as Andrew Zerban would race in, make a little dangle around the Ponies' defense and then fire a wrist shot by Benson to make it 2-0 Elk River. Stillwater would then score on what appeared to be a strange faceoff where the Elks were all standing still as Heddle ripped a shot into the goal. The Elks protested while the officials talked it over. After about 2 minutes of discusion; and the Ponies doing a flyby goal celebration they said "no goal" to cheers from the home crowd. Stillwater's misfortune would be amplified as Elk River would score again on the power play as Chase Springman pounced on a rebound to make it 3-0. Frustration really started to set in for the Ponies and they'd let that spill over into some dirty play as John Heddle would get a 5-minute major and a game disqualification for a hit from behind. Elk River did not do much with the man advantage and they'd carry their 3-0 lead going into the 3rd. In the 3rd period, Stillwater would really pour it on as they tried to claw their way back in the game. Elk River was quick to retreat, to defend their lead and tried to force the Ponies to come up the full length of the ice. This is where Berglove really shined as he made a number of tremendous saves at point blank range. Stillwater would spoil Berglove's shutout bid as Sam Sagissor ripped a snap shot right off a faceoff win that the Elks goalie had no chance on. Now down by 3, the Ponies kept pressing with an extra attacker but Elk River would salt away the win on Jaremko's empty net goal to give the host a 4-1 victory.
Elk River (Girls) 0, Anoka 3 ~ The Elks found themselves in trouble early as the Tornadoes were able to get Elk River into penalty trouble early. On the power play the Tornadoes lit the lamp as Cassidy Motter's shot snuck by Michaela Gould to make it 1-0 Anoka. The Elks would try to counter attack, taking th puck to the net but Molly Scarborough was able to stonewall Elk River. Elk River just couldn't manage to lift the puck when it needed too as Scarborough was dropping to her pads pretty fast to stop any low-lying shots. Anoka would then counter attack and their top line's speed would again draw an Elks penalty. The Tornadoes again made Elk River pay on the power play as their leading scorer Blair Parent found a little space and ripped a shot by Gould to give Anoka a 2-0 lead going into the 2nd period. Elk River would again try to press the attack early but Scarborough was there to slam the door shut. The Elks finally felt they were going to have a chance to cut into the Tornadoes lead on the power play but it wasn't meant to be as a blocked shot from the point by Abby Sanford turned into a Blair Parent breakaway and she beat Gould for the shorty giving Anoka a commanding 3-0 lead. The shorhanded tally really demoralized Elk River, and they never really recovered as Anoka would go onto ruin Elk River hockey's opportunity at a Hockey Day sweep.
It was an incredible day, and one I can proudly say I got to witness personally. I think the City of Elk River (and Mayor John Deitz) and Elk River Area School District (and Superintendent Mark Bezek) as well as the Elk River Hockey Association and its army of volunteers deserve a huge amount of thanks. They put on an outstanding event and they didn't let it become cheesy. They kept it classic. They honored Elk River's proud hockey heritage, from the puck drop from Coach Schumacher (Elk River's 1st High School hockey coach), to the alumni games, to the tribute to the 2001 State Championship Boys team it was just an outstanding day of hockey proving without a doubt they deserved to be hosts of Hockey Day Minnesota.