Before the late 1970s, teams at the 12U, 14U and junior gold levels in Duluth, Minnesota, didn’t have a tournament of their own. They traveled to different parts of the state or Canada to participate in other teams’ invitationals.
That all changed in the spring of 1977. Don Holm, Norm Mangan and Mike Savard, who were active in the Lester Park hockey programs, began organizing the first Spirit of Duluth Invitational Hockey Tournament. Named after Spirit Mountain, a ski hill in the western part of the city, the event’s main objective was to return the favor of the teams who had invited Duluth teams to its tournaments over the years.
“They set the table for the Spirit to become an annual tradition,” said Bill Oswald, current committee chairman and a referee in the tournament’s first year. “Many of the original members stayed on the committee for many years, to make sure the Spirit grew and became what we think today is one of the best youth tournaments in the country.”
To say they accomplished that goal is an understatement. After 41 years, the tournament is still going strong. Of the many players who have participated, several are names well known to hockey fans. Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, Norm Maciver and Sean Hill played in the event, which now hosts teams from as far as Washington, Colorado, Wisconsin, South Dakota and parts of Canada.
“We attract good teams to our tournament,” said Dave Mclean, a tournament committee member and coach of the Duluth East 12U AA team. “Once we get them there, we try to really take good care of [them]. We schedule two-hour blocks for games so we don’t get behind. We try to start every game on fresh ice. We try to ensure a quality experience.”
Much of the event’s original format is still in place today. Up to 40 teams are divided into three divisions: 16 12U, 16 14U, and eight junior gold. Each team plays the others in their bracket using a round-robin format, guaranteeing a minimum of four games. Bracket winners advance to the semifinals and finals, with up to five arenas being used. Teams in the 12U category play 15-minute stop-time periods, while 14U and junior gold teams have 17-minute stop-time periods.
Eric Johnson, who serves as the committee’s liaison for the 14U division, played in several invitationals as a child. A Duluth native, Johnson began skating outside at various neighborhood rinks at age five.
“There’s a great history in the tournament, and a great hockey tradition in Duluth,” Johnson said. “[The city] has neighborhood association rinks dating back decades, where folks have grown up playing hockey outside in the winters. That kind of feeds into the 12U, 14U and junior gold programs that play in the Spirit Tournament.”
The idea of competing against teams from such a wide geographic area has always appealed to Johnson. “The opportunity for us kids to play teams from not just the Twin Cities area but from different parts of the Midwest and Canada was always an exciting prospect [for me] growing up,” he explained. “It was always the biggest tournament of the year, our most exciting to play in.”
According to Oswald, the Spirit’s founding members wanted Duluth’s local teams to play for no entry fee. Teams from outside the city were charged a low entry fee to pay for referees and ice time. Any money left over would be given back to the local teams. That philosophy is still in place today.
“This year, five [local] teams will get somewhere between $1,500 to $2,000 each, to offset some of their costs for the year,” Oswald explained. “Whatever monies we make, we put back in to youth hockey in Duluth.”
The 2017 Spirit of Duluth Invitational took place Dec. 1-3. Osseo-Maple Grove (Minnesota) won the 12U Division, Minnetonka (Minnesota) took the 14U Division, and White Bear Lake (Minnesota) captured the Junior Gold Division.
Running an event of this magnitude takes the help of dedicated volunteers, many of whom are parents and former participants in the tournament. Oswald recalls Glen Stevens, an original committee member and longtime coach, encouraging his players to give back to the programs they played for in their youth when they get the chance.
“Many of them have done so, by coaching, being on boards of the local rinks, or by being on the Spirit committee,” Oswald said.
When asked to return as a committee member, Johnson didn’t hesitate. “I have fond memories of playing in the tournament,” he said. “I recognize the substantial economic impact it has on the Duluth area. Knowing the experience that the teams we bring here have, it’s a no-brainer as far as being a worthwhile thing to stay involved in.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc. Photo courtesy of SportNet-USA