In March of 2019, the State of Hockey was mesmerized by one team.
Maybe it wasn’t so much a team, but more like … a community.
We’re talking about Greenway.
The Raiders boys high school team made a storybook run, besting perennial power Hermantown in overtime in the Section 7A final, upsetting No. 1 seed Mahtomedi – also in overtime – and advancing all the way to the Class A State Championship game before falling to St. Cloud Cathedral.
Though the spotlight shined brightest on Greenway during its three games in Saint Paul last spring, the work done to enable that run took nearly a decade. Thanks to a committed group of volunteers and parents, this small hockey community went from the brink of extinction all the way to the State Championship game.
And in doing so, they’ve provided hope, inspiration and a roadmap for other associations in Minnesota as we look forward to another hockey season.
Fifty years ago, Greenway was among a group of strong hockey programs located in and around the Iron Range. Though the Raiders did not have huge numbers, they produced great players and top teams. Look no further than Mike Antonovich, who went onto star for the University of Minnesota.
“It was an unbelievable sports environment on the Range,” said Tom Serratore, a Coleraine native and current Bemidji State men’s hockey coach. “We had a wonderful hockey environment. It was exciting.”
As decades passed by, Greenway continued to be a force in the state of hockey producing other talented athletes such as Tom and Frank Serratore, Ken Gernander, Mike Peluso, Adam Hauser, Gino Guyer and more.
But in the early 2000s, numbers started dropping, partly because of the local economy.
“The mines began to close, which meant the population wasn’t able to stay where it was,” said Pat Guyer, a long-time community member who has worked in countless roles, including the manager of Hodgins-Berardo Arena in Coleraine.
Adding fuel to the fire, some local families began choosing to play in other nearby programs.
“Slowly after 2001, we started having kids leave the program,” Guyer said. “Once one kid goes, another goes and another.”
Eventually, that decline made its way up to the high school level. In 2010, the numbers dwindled so low that there was talk of Greenway combining with nearby rival Grand Rapids.
Building It Back Up
If Greenway was going to continue its hockey program, it was going to take some community members putting in hard work. Insert Guyer and Jim Lawson. Both have spent years working with this program.
“It was basically finding ways to get numbers back into the program,” Guyer said. “We had to make it less expensive and keep kids in there once they started playing.”
When they started working to revitalize the program around 2010, the work didn’t start just at the lowest level. They had to recruit high school-aged players so they could continue to field a high school team.
“We had to bridge the gap,” Guyer said. “We knew our numbers were strong at the lower levels. But once you do away with the high school program, kids aren’t as motivated to stay in the program.”
Guyer and Lawson spent a significant amount of time recruiting players. They went door-to-door and even classroom-to-classroom recruiting players with any sort of desire to put on the Greenway sweater.
“Without guys like Pat, there would probably be no Greenway High School hockey,” boys varsity coach Grant Clafton said. “There were a lot of kids who didn’t play hockey who took the lumps during that time.
“A lot of credit should be given to those kids who didn’t play youth and kept the program alive.”
Banding Together & Bearing Fruit
Gradually, the influx of Mini Mites, Mites and new families started filling the ranks and moving up the ladder. The key to this? Commitment of the players and parents in the program.
“A bunch of young parents and young people banded together,” Guyer said. “They worked hard and stayed loyal to the program. A lot of people hung on and deserve a lot of credit.”
Those players more recently found on-ice success. In 2016, the Bantam A team advanced to the Minnesota Hockey State Tournament. That run set the table for the varsity program to break through this past spring.
And that’s when the rest of Minnesota got behind them at Xcel Energy Center.
“It goes back to our tradition that got lost,” Guyer said. “You thought you’d never see it come back to fruition. This was one amazing spectacle to be a part of.”
Name of the Game: Grassroots
Heading into the 2019-2020 season, thoughts of folding the program are now in the past. But Greenway is not the only association that has dealt with or is dealing with number issues.
“You have to get right down to the grassroots of the program to the Mini Mites,” Guyer said. “If you don’t have that base built, it falls apart.”
“You have to develop as many kids as you can,” Guyer said. “Concentrate on creating numbers and keeping numbers. It’s easy to say but tough to do.”
Greenway may have the rich tradition and history of a hockey hotbed, but through its commitment to grassroots organizing, they’ve shown communities throughout the state of Minnesota how to build strong and successful programs for generations to come.