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The Ultimate Teacher: Goligoski on the Benefits and Joy of Outdoor Hockey

By Jessi Pierce, 01/17/23, 1:00PM CST

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Two blocks from Alex Goligoski’s Grand Rapids home was an outdoor rink. His home away from home in the winter months, Goligoski has a hard time remembering a time as a kid that he wasn’t out there skating around with his buddies.

“I was there pretty much every night,” said the current Minnesota Wild defenseman. “I think I was probably playing hockey there more than I was inside at that point. My buddies and I would meet up there and go every night in the winter. It was our favorite thing to do.”

It was the outdoor sheet that allowed Goligoski to pretend he was one of his favorite players. While he eventually  emulated legendary NHL defensemen like Scott Niedermeyer and Nicklas Lidström, Goligoski first admired and imitated the older players on the pond with him.

“One of my brother’s buddies, Andrew Downing, was a really good player. He was a local kid who I wanted so much to be like,” said Goligoski, who was named a Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalist in 2004. “That’s what made playing outdoors there so fun; you got the chance to skate around with kind of the local legends of Grand Rapids.”

Before Goligoski himself became a ‘local legend’ he sharpened his skills on the outdoor pond. Here are some of the things that helped translate into a 15-year NHL career (and counting).

Sticks in the Middle

If you’ve ever played pond hockey, you know the custom that is piling up the sticks at center ice to divvy up the teams. Then, it’s game on, no matter how the cards are dealt.

It’s about kids deciding things for themselves.

“I’ve had a lot of really great coaches growing up,” said Goligoski, who played for the Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes and Pittsburgh Penguins in addition to the Wild. “But also, we learned a lot just playing outside with our buddies too. It taught us how to kind of take charge for ourselves.

“Coaches help a lot in teaching you how to do things and how to play the right way, but it’s just as important to not have coaches out there and to figure stuff out for yourself.”

The Next Superstar

Whether Goligoski was pretending to be Niedermeyer, Lidstrom, or Downing, it was that imagination, creativity and freedom from the outdoor ice that helped hone his passion and skills – even if he didn’t know it.

“It’s funny, there’s so much that you’re learning while you’re out there with your friends that you just don’t even realize,” said Goligoski, who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009.

It’s Tradition

After he signed a one-year deal with the Wild in 2021, adding a two-year extension in 2022, Goligoski wasted little time setting up a hockey rink in the backyard for his kids: 6-year-old Roman and 4-year-old Mila.

It was a no-brainer. It’s just what you do in Minnesota. Right?

“There are tons of rinks around the entire state. I mean, what else would you want to do here in the winter when it gets dark out at 5 o’clock and it’s freezing out. You want to be under the lights with your best friends having a blast.”