Made in Minnesota
by Joe Hanstad on 07/29/11 at 11:00 AM ET
While we are currently deep into the NHL off-season, I thought it would be nice to step away from the Wild for a bit and focus on other aspects of hockey life in Minnesota.
One of the perks of living in a state covered by ice five months out of the year is that kids get ample opportunities to get out and play some puck. Some of my favorite memories from my childhood revolve around the outdoor rinks in my hometown - finishing dinner, grabbing my skates, and going out to play a pick-up game with my family until either the rink attendant called us into the warming house at closing time, or my older brother threw me over the boards into a giant snowbank. Given the amount of people we encountered on those subzero nights, its entirely likely that rinks all over the state were just as busy.
So its really no surprise that youth hockey is as important in our state as opening night of the NHL season.
Throughout the fall and winter months, local arenas and recreation centers become filled with the distinct aroma of used hockey equipment as young kids start up new friendships and learn to take those first strides on the ice. Parents can always be seen in the bleachers or in the warming rooms, finding unique ways to handle their coffee mugs while wearing gloves as they cheer their sons or daughters on.
Meanwhile the older kids are getting back together with the same group of friends they were with during the previous season. As the age level increases from “squirts” to “peewees” to “bantams”, so too does the skill sets they must adopt. Proper skating techniques are emphasized well before the players even get to see pucks on the ice in practice (which can be a downer because most kids want to develop their slap shot before they learned how to do proper crossovers. I know from experience.). Once stickhandling, passing, and shooting are addressed the players start learning systems and how to make all the parts fit together. Offense, defense, and special teams - all constantly shifting elements meant to fit together and form a true team.
(Pretty much everything I am describing is exactly like a montage scene from The Mighty Ducks, but with even more Emilio Estevez! )
For a majority of the kids that stick with their local youth-hockey program through their teenage years, the final stage of the process is high school varsity and junior-varsity. Years of hard work (and parents scraping ice off of countless windshields) leads to the opportunity to represent your city in the Minnesota State High School League, which every year sponsors the Boys’ and Girls’ state high school tournament.
When March hits in the Twin Cities, this event becomes the must-see attraction for even casual hockey fans. Tickets are almost impossible to come by for the championship games, and many of Minnesota’s hockey greats are generally in attendance, including the legendary Lou Nanne who can be found performing commentary duties. NHL scouts can also be found walking around the concourses, further fueling the perception that this tournament really is the best of the best. Just getting into the tourney is brutal for most of the teams, as the divisional playoffs decide who gets to step onto the Xcel Energy Center ice.
Current NHL players such as Blake Wheeler, Paul Martin, and TJ Oshie have played in this tournament multiple times, and every year brings a new crop of young players that go on to eventually be drafted to the big leagues, just like when the Florida Panthers selected Kyle Rau, this year’s Minnesota “Mr. Hockey” award winner, in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Rau had been a can’t-miss prospect for some time from Eden Prairie, and solidified that status by leading his team all the way to the AA Championship game.
As the tournament and season ends, most of the players anxiously await for the snow to fall again. With improvements being made every season in physical training and hockey equipment, the game itself improves every year. Minnesota provides this excellent program for these kids, and the trade-off is the expansion of the sport in our region, and has had benefits for growing the sport in this country as well.
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