Photo Credit: Matt Kane
Since the early days of hockey in Minnesota, small towns have played a big role in the culture and tradition in the State of Hockey. In fact, small towns dominated the first 25+ years of organized hockey in Minnesota. Only one metro area team (St. Paul Johnson) won a title at the boys state high school hockey tournament through its first 24 years, as communities like Eveleth, Roseau and International Falls dominated headlines at the youth and high school levels.
As society changed and more people congregated in urban areas, hockey participation in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area grew at an incredible rate and eventually resulted in new hockey powers.
Wayzata Youth Hockey Association, for example, held its inaugural season in 1968-69 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season. While numbers were modest when they started, Wayzata now provides a hockey experience for over 1,000 players, which rivals what some small associations have for total population in their community.
Certainly, much in the hockey landscape has changed over time, but the pride and passion for small town hockey in Minnesota has not.
We sat down with Baudette native Alex Lyon, who is the second player from Lake of the Woods Youth Hockey to play in the NHL in the past ten years, and Brian Halonen of Delano to hear more about what makes growing up in smaller Minnesota communities still so special.
There are few places in the country, and even the world, in which small communities rally around hockey like they do in Minnesota. It’s a deep-rooted part of the culture that has been passed from generation to generation for over a century.
“Ages six to 15, I lived at the arena,” said Lyon, who has split time between the Philadelphia Flyers and Lehigh Valley Phantoms this season. “The passion of the community and the camaraderie that hockey brought was so special, and the rink kind of served as a vessel for that.”
“I mean they’re building a new rink there now, which I think is such a testament to how big of a part of the fabric of the community hockey is, and that goes for every community in northern Minnesota.”
Hockey’s place in the roots of communities isn’t just found in prominent hockey communities or northern Minnesota either. Recent success has brought a spotlight to towns like Luverne and Delano, which may not have the same history as other parts of the state, but they display a similar passion for the game and their teams.
“The [Delano] community cares about their hockey, and it shows in the turnouts they get,” said Halonen, a freshman at Michigan Tech. “We had unbelievable fans. Our fans traveled to pretty much every visiting game, and they filled our rink every home game.”
That type of support creates a special experience, one that has been inspiring kids in Minnesota for decades.
“More than anything, I always remember that feeling,” said Lyon. “That feeling of being in the rink. From the time my parents brought me to high school games, I remember the feeling that it was home.”
Editor’s Note: There is a total of seven indoor ice sheets in the three communities of Roseau, Warroad and Baudette for a population of roughly 5,500 people. Meanwhile, there were 19 U.S. states with seven or fewer total ice arenas in 2014 according to Rinktime.com.
The Minnesota Boys State High School Hockey tournament undoubtedly plays a huge role in driving the passion and community support found in small communities.
“Even now, I think about the memories I have of the state tournament, and it gives me a little shiver,” said Lyon. “In terms of being a Minnesota high school hockey player, that’s the Stanley Cup.”
“I never came close to being in it, but I went to the State Tournament my eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade and eleventh grade years just to go watch. I loved it so much, and I wanted to be part of the experience and see what it was like. Those are some of the best memories I have is hanging out with a couple of my buddies down at the state tournament and watching all of those games.”
For those who are able to climb the mountain and experience the “Tourney”, it becomes a memory they’ll never forget.
“To be the first team from Delano to be able to do it, to make it down to the X[cel], was pretty special,” said Halonen. “We knew all along we could be a good team, and we always were. It just came together at the right time for us.”
To reach that pinnacle with his best friends made it even sweeter emphasized Halonen:
“We grew up playing endless hours of pond hockey with each other, competing with each other. Playing on every single team with them from Squirts through senior year of high school, it was an awesome experience.”
A Greater Appreciation
“When you’re in a small town, that’s all you know,” said Lyon. “You kind of make the assumption that’s how life operates outside of your small town.”
Whether it’s being exposed to other perspectives and backgrounds through teammates in junior hockey or becoming engrained in another community while in college, players learn quickly how different life can be in other parts of the country and world.
In most cases, that new perception comes with two distinct realizations when it comes to hockey. The first is there are some pretty unique experiences and impressive training programs in the hockey world. The second is a feeling of gratitude for the environment they grew up in.
“The small-town atmosphere provided me with so much,” said Lyon, who has seen first-hand the trend of sport specialization in hockey on the East Coast. “You can blossom as a person and as an athlete. I played football, and I played baseball. If I was in another community, I don’t know if I would have necessarily had those opportunities.”
Halonen echoed Lyon’s view, noting the stories he heard about other parts of the country fueled an even deeper sense of pride and appreciation for growing up in Delano.
“I was fortunate enough to grow up in the state of Minnesota, where travel for hockey is quite minimal compared to what other players and parents have to go through,” said Halonen. “You talk to some players, and they move away at 14 years old. They have to miss so much time away from their family.”
“The travel and commitment is so much less in Minnesota and that makes it pretty special. You can be with your family all the way through your senior year of high school. You don’t have to move away, and you can still become a good hockey player.”
Certainly, small towns, and Minnesota in general, have their own challenges, but whether players simply want to play for fun or if they want to strive to play the game at its highest levels, they can achieve their goals from anywhere in the state.
“In Minnesota, I think people don’t realize how much exposure there actually is there,” said Lyon. “I have teammates now who are from the deepest depths of Russia and all the way up in middle of nowhere Norway, but they get found.”
“You don’t have to be at a so-called elite program to become a good hockey player,” said Halonen. “If you have the drive and the work ethic and the desire to make it, you can do it. Delano gave me everything I could have wanted to become the hockey player I wish to be.”