From Bloomington to Blaine, Grand Rapids to East Grand Forks, Mankato to Marshall, Minnesotans have been honing their skills and hockey sense with their buddies outside for decades.
It’s a proven teacher. Just ask the pros.
“I think every player that grows up in a cold climate will tell you that out on the pond or on a neighborhood rink is where you learn your creativity and get to just go out and have some fun,” Wild forward and Blaine native Nick Bjugstad said. “You’re not coached. You can do what you want as far as making moves and even playing positions — it’s just the best time.”
As the temps get colder and the lakes start to harden up, the State of Hockey romantics conjure up the pull to outdoor rinks everywhere. It’s a tradition unlike any other. It’s hockey in its purest form, where friendships are strengthened and dangles are developed.
Pond hockey, backyard puck, pickup, shinny — whatever you call it and wherever you make your outdoor hockey home — can be a huge piece in the development puzzle.
“That’s where you learn to play hockey,” Grand Rapids royalty and current Wild defenseman Alex Goligoski said. “You’re playing against older people, and against a lot of different skill levels with no structure. You drop a puck, and you go out and figure it out. That’s where your mind learns to play the game and figure it out out there.”
For Goligoski, ‘out there’ was at Southwest Rink next to the elementary school about two blocks from his house.
“We were out there all the time, my brother and all our buddies pretty much every night. When there’s nothing else to do, we’d go to the rink and play some hockey. That’s just how we grew up.”
For Bjugstad, who played in one of the coldest Hockey Day Minnesotas in Baudette, Happy Acres in Blaine was where the winter fun began.
“They had an outdoor Zamboni and always really good ice, so I would beg my parents to go there regularly,” Bjugstad said with a laugh. “And one of my buddies had a rink when that was closed. I remember crying sometimes because my parents would tell me I had to do my homework or it was too late. I just wanted to be out there.”
‘Where the Love Affair Starts’
Aside from learning different facets of the game, playing with and against different ages and skill levels, experimenting with trick plays, and even trying goalie as Bjugstad and Goligoski did, outdoor hockey allows players to discover their passion.
“Even my friends growing up that didn’t play hockey, they had skates so they could go on the pond because that’s where the love affair starts,” said Parrish, a proud Bloomington Jefferson Jaguar who played 11 years in the NHL, including two with the Wild. “Before wanting to wear that baby blue at Jefferson, it was keeping up with my brother on the pond in the neighborhood. We had a couple Jefferson players that would come out on the pond with us and ‘Oh my gosh, we got to skate with a varsity guy out on the pond!’
“That’s where my passion came. All those little things, that’s where the dreams and romance begins is out on that black ice of a pond and playing outdoors.”
Replicate Your Favorite Players
And the no-holds barred creativity allowed outside? It’s just as lovable.
“I thought I was Nicklas Lidstrom or Scott Niedermayer out there on the pond,” chuckled Goligoski. “I watched what they did and then would try to replicate that out there. I wanted to be those guys and the easiest way to try what they did without making a mistake in a game is outside.”
Bjugstad said for him creativity was learned by watching the other guys he was playing with outside too.
“Not only was I trying what came to me, but I would see them make a move and go ‘Oh that was cool, I wanna try that,’” he said. “You learn from watching everyone else’s creativity.”
Let the Game Be Your Guide
Parrish says the pond forces you to think, solve problems, make quick decisions and be creative … all without instruction.
“There is zero coaching. Instead, there are 800 sticks out there all fighting for one puck and you don’t remember who is on what team but there are so many little intricacies that turn into hockey IQ,” said Parrish. “That’s where you really start thinking about the game and breaking down the game. All of sudden it’s ‘OK, how do I find a way to get this puck to my brother through 800 people and wait a minute is my brother on the same team or is he just messing with me and all those things with your buddies ... and it starts to begin right there.”
Oh yeah, and that zero coaching? That’s not entirely true. It’s all about letting the game and others be your guide — a wonderful complement to regular-season coaching.
“I always wanted to go to my backhand. All the coaches told me to stick to my forehand, use your strong side and stick with your strengths and I had a bit of rebellion in me, so I always tried to go to my backhand on the pond,” Parrish recalled. “I was always working on that after practice when I couldn’t wait to get on the pond.
“That’s where your hands come in, that’s where you learn to protect the puck. The ice is horrible and it’s snowy and choppy, so you gotta learn to control the puck on bad ice and you gotta learn how to make passes on bad ice, catch passes on bad ice and all of this is happening when you’re just out there having fun with your buddies. You don’t even realize how much you’re working on the game because you’re just having a boatload of fun. All of these little skills that go along with hockey really start with just having fun with your buddies, my brother, my dad. It all starts on the pond, outside, freezing your butt off, hoping your toes thaw out eventually.”