Forget the tropical vacation. This California hockey girl headed to the coldest spot in January to get her winter fix, Minnesota, to take in Hockey Day Minnesota. A weekend filled with hockey at all levels, from high school hockey to the NHL, from the backyard pond to stadium groomed ice, a hockey lover’s dream. Minnesota has the nickname State of Hockey for good reason. There is no other state that lives and breathes the game as a Canadian does. Throw a rock and you are bound to hit a hockey player. Children are thrown on skates in Minnesota before they can walk. and backyard rinks spring up all over the place. The land of 10,000 lakes guarantees a frozen sheet close to home if the backyard doesn’t get flooded too.
The hockey dream weekend began with a stadium game at TCF Bank Arena, home of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. It was the first time in 80 years that hockey returned to its roots outdoors, and over 45,000 fans, the largest crowd in Minnesota hockey history, braved the cold to watch the Gophers beat the Ohio State Buckeyes 1-0. The game was tight, with both teams battling the elements to get shots on net. Gophers Taylor Cammarata netted the only goal during the second period of play and netminder Adam Wilcox delivered a wall of a performance, stopping all 21 shots the Buckeyes tossed his way.
Next up was heading out to Handke Pit in Elk River, MN to take in some high school hockey to officially kick off Hockey Day Minnesota. The setting couldn’t be more ideal for an outdoor game. The rink was nestled at the bottom of a sheltered hill, wooden bleachers mixed in with the trees. Handke Pit is considered the birthplace of hockey in Elk River and it’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Four NHL players Penguins’ defenceman Paul Martin, Assistant Columbus Blue Jackets Coach Dan Hinote, former Philadelphia Flyers centerman Joel Otto and Minnesota Wild defenceman Nate Prosser made their hockey home on Handke Pit and it continues to be a centerpoint for hockey in the Elk River area.
Three high school games took place on the ice, all broadcast on FoxSports North, with the Rochester Lourdes Eagles facing off against the Cloquet/Esko/ Carlton Lumberjacks first. The Elk River Elks then took on the Stillwater Ponies for the afternoon matchup. The late afternoon session featured the girls matchup of the Elk River Elks versus the Anoka Tornadoes.
I caught the first game on television back in Anoka, heading out to the afternoon matchup to see the home team Elk River Elks meet the Stillwater Ponies. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect and a few thousand people filled the stands and the hillside for the afternoon game. Joel Otto dropped the ceremonial puck and the Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton addressed the crowd. It was clear the two teams have a rivalry as the play was fast, intense and physical. Penalties cost the Ponies dearly and the Elks took the contest 4-1. Throughout the game, families gathered, old friends reconnected and children tumbled down the hillside, their laughter mixed with the sound of puck and skates to ice.
After a quick recharge, it was off to the Minnesota Wild game at Xcel Energy Center in Downtown St. Paul to close out the evening. The Wild took on the Dallas Stars, always a heated affair. Minnesota fans still harbour lingering resentment to Dallas, who stole their beloved NorthStars in 1993. Minnesota, the State of Hockey, was without a NHL franchise for 8 years until the the Wild were born in the 2000-2001 season.
Prosser put in the overtime winner, edging the Stars 3-2. He notched his second goal in two consecutive games and became the first Wild defenseman to score in back-to-back games. His goal was the icing on the cake for Hockey Day Minnesota, a local guy who grew up playing puck in the Pit and grew up to play with the big club.
The final stop for my hockey vacation was Lake Nokomis, the site of the US Pond Hockey Championships, a three-day tournament that began almost 10 years ago where teams compete for the Golden Shovel. Championship Sunday consists of the womens, rink rat and open division finals. The game is played four aside over two fifteen minute periods. The lake itself is spectacular, covered in 25 pond hockey rinks, mostly filled throughout the weekend. The game is raw, pure hockey love, stripped of its formality, it’s hockey how it was meant to be played.
The Open Division final pitted two teams Wright Homes Almost 40 and the Tail Gators for the quest for the Golden Shovel. The two teams share the bond both as former teammates and friends, so the rivalry on the ice reached at times a feverish pitch as bodies went over the short boards and words were exchanged as things heated up. Wright Homes captured the title for the 5th time, the Golden Shovel reaching their hands just as the sun extended its golden fingers in sunset, and so ended my weekend of hockey bliss.
If you are looking for an escape To the cold and your passion is hockey, Hockey Day Minnesota should be on your bucket list. Sure, the stadium series are all the rage, but hockey out on the pond reaches back to the roots of the game, capturing the very spirit of the game we love.