“If you build it, they will come.”
The famous quote comes from the movie Field of Dreams, but could be applied to Hermantown hockey, now one of Minnesota’s most successful programs from top to bottom.
In the early ‘90s, legendary former Hermantown High School coach Bruce Plante saw hockey boom in the community with the construction of the Hermantown Hockey Arena.
“Our enrollment probably went up about 100 kids in one year,” Plante said.
While the new facility generated the first wave of hockey buzz, it was the construction of four outdoor rinks adjacent to the indoor arena that has been the biggest boon for the hockey culture in the community of about 10,000. Originally, they had outdoor rinks sprawled out across the community.
“We weren’t getting the activity at the other [rinks],” Plante said. “We thought having them separated they’d be closer to people, but it didn’t work out that great.
“We decided to move these rinks by the main rink and flood them.”
Soon more athletic kids were picking up hockey sticks wanting to be a part of the fun. Plante said that before they would play basketball or football.
“The kids would go to the outdoor rinks and other kids wanted to be a part of that and it just exploded and snowballed,” Plante said.
Putting Kids First
One of the kids that was there when the arena was built is current Hermantown High School head coach, Pat Andrews.
“We didn't have an indoor sheet so I was playing outside,” Andrews said. “When I was 8 they built the current arena.”
Andrews said he remembers his father and parents of friends helping lend a hand to build the arena to help alleviate costs.
“They didn't have enough money to go out and hire contractors to do everything and we had a ton of fundraisers,” Andrews said. “Our hockey community has always banded together to do what's best for the kids regardless of the time and commitment that it takes.”
That child-first attitude is a big reason that Andrews sees Hermantown’s program producing high-level talent from a small town.
“It might not be unique to Hermantown, but I think what we’re definitely done really well is we put kids first, absolutely, and we've let kids be kids,” Andrews said. “Everything that our hockey community has done is tried to look out for what's best for the kids and their development first and foremost.”
Outdoor Hockey Is a Lifestyle
Both Plante and Andrews pointed to the four outdoor rinks as the leading source of hockey development in Hermantown. With only one indoor sheet, teams at all ages and levels practice outdoors.
“Our kids aren’t spoiled. They still practice outside so it’s part of their life. It’s part of their existence as being a hockey player,” Plante said. “Our mites, squirts, peewees and bantams still practice outdoors.”
While teams have organized practices, one rink is kept open every night for shinny hockey.
“You’ll see seniors in high school all the way down to 5-year-olds,” Plante said. “The rule is everybody gets to skate.”
The rinks are also conveniently located. When it was built, it was right across the road from the old high school. It’s still only a short jaunt from the new high school and elementary school.
“They’re easy to walk to. A kindergartener could walk there,” Plante said.
There’s also a bus that runs from the elementary school and stops at the rink if any kids want a ride.
“Kids could come out of school and be at the rink,” Plante said. “They can be on the ice for two or three hours after school before their parents pick them up on the way home from work at 6 o’clock.”
Having an outdoor rink right next to the indoor rink acts as a babysitter, too.
“People would come if they had a peewee game and they bring their younger kid. And younger one would go out there and skate for a couple hours while the peewee game was going on,” Plante said.
In the early ‘90s, to get more involvement from older kids, they implemented the “rink rat” program, where kids could earn a T-shirt for organizing and running shinny games on the outdoor rink. This is where a lot of learning and development happened.
“That’s where you learn that creativity,” Plante said. “You get together with your eight buddies. You just learn how to give and go; you learn how to stop and start. You’re just doing this on your own. You're learning and you don’t even know you’re learning; you're just having fun. You put the puck between your legs and you do all these little funky things you see the pros do and the college guys do and high school kids do.”
With the rink rat program, it didn’t take long for Hermantown to start fielding quality high school teams. In 1994 they made the MSHSL Boys State Tournament and were runners up in 1998. The Hermantown Hawks have won the State Tournament three times, in 2007, 2016 and 2017.
“That’s when our program took off,” Andrews said. “In the late ‘90s we made a couple State Tournament runs. But once the 2000s hit, if you look at those birth years, those are the kids that were getting into mites when we built those rinks. And it’s not just about winning, but that was a result of [the outdoor rinks]. We also have had back-to-back years with high NHL draft picks. These kids are being recognized on a world stage, not just a state stage.”
Both coaches think kids need to learn the game when it’s unstructured. That’s why time on the outdoor ice in Hermantown is so valuable.
“I totally think a lot of that rink rat, hockey sense stuff is lost because everything is structured and controlled by a coach,” Plante said. “Too much hands-on, not allowing the kids to do their own thing.”
The four rinks are maintained by members of the community. Teams are designated weeks to keep the ice cleaned and flooded. They also have a Zamboni for the outdoor rinks. They typically put the ice in the first week of December.
“When you pull up on any given Tuesday night or Thursday night and it's snowing a little bit and those rinks are full of kids, you can't help but smile,” Andrews said. “They're having fun and it's just kind of a throwback.”
Currently, Hermantown is looking at building another indoor rink. But if they do add another indoor sheet, Plante doesn’t want it to take away from the outdoor culture.
“When they’re out there on their own, they’re just having fun,” Plante said. “They make up their own stuff. It’s self-directed learning. They have to figure it out and pick teams. All that stuff is good for them. All that outdoor stuff is invaluable and I believe to this day that’s our little secret. Our kids are willing to do it and love doing it.”