Booms and busts are part of life on Minnesota’s Iron Range, like the rich red dirt that stains tires on the outskirts of small towns like Coleraine.
But even in places hardened to hard times, few could have foreseen a rock bottom bust for the Greenway hockey program. Certainly not during its dynastic run to five consecutive Minnesota state tournaments in the late 1960s, nor amidst its three most recent trips in 1987, 1992 or 2001, when almost all of the community’s 3,000 residents watched in rapture as their outstate Raiders tangled with Twin Cities goliaths.
No, in those days, it would have been unthinkable that coaches would someday knock at doors, begging kids to play so Greenway would have enough skaters to survive. But knock they did in the mid-2000s, as participation dropped and a toxic apathy sprouted where fiery passion used to grow.
“It hurt the heart of our program,” said Jim Lawson, a 1979 Greenway High School graduate who now serves as head coach of the Raiders’ varsity team. “The Greenway pride was gone.”
But just like the ore mines a mile west of Coleraine’s Hodgins-Berardo Arena, Greenway hockey is in the midst of resurgence. Player registration throughout the ranks, from mini-mites through varsity, is up 50 percent since 2010, fueling hope that the Raiders may soon return to their traditional stature among Iron Range programs.
Powering the resurgence was a team effort, and while the rebuilders’ strategies sometimes opposed, they were unified in pursuit of a revitalized program. Paul Dulong was among them, enlisting volunteers like Arthur Rajala and Jim Jenson to help fan the hockey embers among local grade-school students. Lawson, along with Pat Guyer, who coached Greenway’s varsity to third place at the 2001 state tournament, also joined the classroom circuit, encouraging children in Coleraine and nearby Nashwauk to try hockey.
Neighborhood friends raised in Greenway green-and-white, Lawson and Guyer grew from boys to men to fathers in the program, and at its low point, they aimed to resurrect it.
“I looked at Pat and said, ‘We can’t let this happen,’” said Lawson. “We wanted future generations to feel how we felt when we went in that rink and put on that jersey.”
Thus commenced the door-to-door rebirth of Greenway hockey, with Lawson and Guyer walking the streets in search of high school players. They also helped stockpile a free beginner equipment cache to entice parents of young players.
The results were mixed at first. They staved off a merger with a neighboring program, preserving the identity of Greenway Hockey, but thin rosters led to humbling defeats. Progress was slow. Gradually, however, the community galvanized. A new energy coursed through youth coaches, parents and volunteers. Players pulsed with a new level of discipline and commitment. A new association board, led by Andrew Gray, collaborated with the joint recreational boards to spur progress.
At the same time, Magnetation, a new mining operation, rumbled to life, reclaiming ore from tailings with a locally expanding workforce. As more young families arrived in and around Coleraine, or chose to remain there, grade-school class sizes increased, which further expanded the hockey program’s player pool. At the same time, Gray and his Greenway Hockey colleagues were doing their part to make sure a manageable hockey experience awaited those children and their families. To limit costs, they continued using outdoor ice for their younger age groups and capping travel tournaments to three per season. They also negotiated hotel discounts and implemented a fresh approach to fundraising.
“We do what we need to do to make sure our kids get the best we can afford,” said Gray.
Back in Production
Player development is at the core of Greenway’s values. The association bolstered its already-robust local hockey know-how with USA Hockey American Development Model tenets like a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio, station-based practices and small-area games, along with USA Hockey’s coaching resources.
“It was controversial early, because everyone wants to play a bunch of games, but we stayed the course with a skill-development focus,” said Guyer, a Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Famer with 225 career victories and a state championship to his credit. “It’s a hard sell, but it’s the right way to do it.”
Greenway also created one of the state’s most progressive off-ice training programs. Sport-specific yoga forms the foundation, led by Sunlife Yoga founder Amy Kenow, a Brainerd-based former college athlete who guides players through customized hot yoga routines three times each week, focusing on core strength, balance, flexibility and recovery. It’s part of a standardized off-ice training regimen for players ranging from peewee to varsity.
“It’s been a godsend for our kids,” said Gray. “And Coleraine was the first to do it.”
Since the yoga began, players’ injuries have been few and dazzling Gumby-like saves have been many. Adding to the benefits, every yoga session is conducted in Greenway’s home rink at a per-player cost of only $1.25, thanks to the association’s fundraising efforts.
“It’s amazing what Andy and Amy have done, throughout our whole program,” said Lawson. “The yoga has spread like wildfire. It’s helped immensely.”
And now the competitiveness is spreading, too. Greenway’s peewees recently completed a healthy Founder’s Cup showing, mite numbers are strong and the bantams boast competitive clubs, pointing to better days ahead.
The glory days aren’t back just yet, but Greenway hockey definitely is.
“It’s been totally a group effort, from the youth coaches to the parents to the schools,” said Guyer. “Everybody had to recommit to what we wanted this program to look like. The community did a great job making a decision to do things in a different way and commit to what we were going to do. Since then, we haven’t lost any kids and we’re starting to gain. That’s a testament to the parents and community staying committed and believing that what we were doing was going to work.”
From Lawson’s perch behind the Greenway varsity bench, he’s starting to see some of that old sparkle return.
“It’s almost like it used to be,” he said. “It’s a whole effort now, with a support system, and it’s so exciting for that buzz to be here again. Seeing the joy in the kids’ eyes, that’s what it is. And I remind them about the kids that answered when we were knocking on doors. Those kids were heroes. They saved the ‘G’ for these kids to wear.”
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