More than six years ago, a group of hockey and business leaders in St. Cloud, Minnesota, got together and made a compelling pitch to the Minnesota Wild for hosting Hockey Day Minnesota in their community. The group pointed to a rich hockey heritage that includes St. Cloud State University and the successful youth, high school, and junior programs throughout Central Minnesota.
The persistence and hard work finally paid off last March, when the Wild announced that the 2018 Hockey Day event would be awarded to St. Cloud.
“It’s a very in-demand event for other cities, as you can imagine,” said Mike Petroske, president of St. Cloud’s youth hockey program and co-chair of the event committee. “It’s become a statewide television and in-person event. Fox Sports North, who does the broadcasting, says it’s probably their biggest television event of the year. St. Cloud State has a storied past with starting hockey on Lake George, so we’re bringing it back to where it all started.”
This year’s Hockey Day Minnesota took place over the weekend of Jan. 19-21, and it was more than just a showcase of hockey talent. Live music, hot air balloons, ice sculptures and other entertainment contributed to a complete celebratory experience. Fox Sports North and NHL Network provided extensive television coverage.
“Hockey Day has become a statewide unofficial holiday, where we take a second to reflect on the game we love, and the difference it makes in our lives and our communities,” said Brian Schoenborn, St. Cloud’s event committee chairman.
Friday included a girls high school game, along with the St. Cloud State Huskies Alumni Classic at Lake George that featured a pre-game tribute to former U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team and Huskies coach Herb Brooks.
In one of the Saturday outdoor games on the shores of Lake George, St. Cloud State edged Minnesota Duluth 2-1 in a shootout. It was the first outdoor women’s college matchup played during Hockey Day’s 12-year history. A couple of boys high school games were also held, while 8U and 12U teams participated in pond hockey games and intrasquad scrimmages on the lake. For many youth players, it was their first direct experience with Hockey Day Minnesota.
“The kids ate it up,” said Josh Rock, 8U coordinator for the Sauk Rapids youth hockey program. “They had a blast. They arrived early, they skated on the lake to get used to it a little bit, and had fun. I even saw one of our mini-mites skating with their dog. The ice got a little warm throughout the day, so they got a little wet, but [they had] no complaints.”
Rock has taken his two 8U sons to previous Hockey Day celebrations. Two years ago, they went to a lighted rink for a midnight skate.
“My boys were indoctrinated into Hockey Day early on, before actually playing in an affiliated event,” Rock said. “My oldest one had a formal game [Saturday] morning, and then played pond hockey in the afternoon. One would think he would have been tired, but no, he went full at it when he got his chance to play out on the ice. He had a great time.”
At the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, Minnesota State University, Mankato, defeated host St. Cloud State 5-2 in a men’s college game. The Minnesota Wild then treated their home fans to a 5-2 win over Tampa Bay at Xcel Energy Center in that night’s NHL matchup.
Sunday was mainly devoted to Youth Hockey Day. Teams from 10U to 14U played in 38 games, nine of which featured girls teams.
“The kids were all smiles, which was worth the price of admission,” Petroske said. “[There were] a lot of photograph sessions after the games with moms and dads on the ice, a lot of things that you don’t see in the normal course of the season. It was a real mood brightener for all the kids and for the families.”
The St. Cloud Youth Hockey Association coordinated more than 250 volunteers to help throughout the weekend. Schoenborn was thrilled with the support and attendance of his community.
“We had a little over 5,000 people there on Friday night for the girls high school game and the Alumni Classic,” he said. “We had over 20,000 people there on Saturday. On Sunday, we had over 1,500 youth hockey players from participating communities.”
Hockey Day Minnesota will move 138 miles to the north in 2019 when Bemidji hosts for the first time. Schoenborn believes this year’s success significantly raises the bar for future host cities.
“It couldn’t have gone any better,” he said. “We had perfect weather, incredible crowds. It created a new paradigm for St. Cloud and Central Minnesota. I had someone send me an email saying he had to choke back tears [after] his son said it was the best day of his life.”
It’s that kind of emotional experience that can do wonders for the growth of youth hockey in Minnesota for years to come.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.