Kevin Kurtt

Would the real Hockeytown USA please stand up?

By Kevin Kurtt

Let’s Play Hockey Editor

 

In the Oct. 18 issue of Let’s Play Hockey, I brought you a not-quite-comprehensive list of what it means to be a hockey fan in Minnesota. Atop that list was the following item:

“You might be a hockey fan in Minnesota if…you get ticked off when you hear Detroit call itself ‘Hockeytown USA.’”

Well, scratch that one off the list and move over Detroit. There’s a new Hockeytown USA in, well, town.

 

In last week’s edition of Sports Illustrated, Michael Farber dethroned the MotorCity and handed over the mythical title to St. Paul. Detroit lost its designation as Hockeytown USA largely due to lackluster attendance at Red Wings games and waning interest in the sport of hockey in Michigan’s largest city.

St. Paul, Farber wrote, is hockey’s epicenter in the U.S. mainly because of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, a franchise that has gone out of its way to be respectful of the game, its fans and the countless hockey players in the state.

Farber’s conclusion has certainly been greeted with pride here in the Twin Cities as it seems the nation now has been told what we have known all along: the game of hockey holds a special place in the hearts of countless Minnesotans – something you just don’t see in other areas of the country.

What Farber fails to recognize, however, is the inadequacy of naming just one Minnesota city as Hockeytown USA. Although it’s truly just a marketing slogan the Wild cooked up in their nod to grassroots hockey in Minnesota, “The State of Hockey” really does capture what the sport means to this state. Congratulations to St. Paul for its new moniker, but Hockeytown USA doesn’t just reside in Minnesota’s capital and second-largest city.

Here in Minnesota (not just in St. Paul), hockey is strongly woven into our fabric of life. Learning to skate, shoot and stickhandle is a rite of passage for countless Minnesota kids every winter in cities and towns across the state.

As SI’s lead NHL writer, Farber surely based much of his article on what he has witnessed and experienced at the XcelEnergyCenter during Wild games. Obviously, without the Wild, St. Paul wouldn’t have received a sniff of gaining Hockeytown USA status.

The fact remains, however, that hockey in this state doesn’t begin or end with the Minnesota Wild. If the Wild were to pack their bags tomorrow, the game would thrive as it has since hockey’s origins in this country in the late 19th century.

Hockey in Minnesota is about trudging through the snow to reach the warming house at the local park. It’s about skipping school or work to go to or watch the state high school tournament. It’s about clearing your schedule on Friday and Saturday nights in the winter to watch the Gophers. It’s about hockey moms (and dads). It’s about rivalries. It’s about Mites, Squirts, PeeWees, Bantams and a nation-leading population of girls’ hockey players.

But let’s give credit to St. Paul where it’s due. Our capital city hosts the hockey equivalent to the Indiana state basketball and Texas state football tournaments. No one can argue that the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament at the XcelEnergyCenter is the best prep hockey event in the nation, and perhaps the world.

In that same vein, St. Paul is home to several of the state’s perennial and historical high school hockey powers. From St. Paul Johnson’s four titles, to Hill-Murray’s 10 top three finishes, to Cretin-Derham Hall’s recent state championship, St. Paul is no slouch in the prep hockey ranks.

St. Paul is also home to possibly the most successful college hockey tournament in the country – the WCHA Final Five. The WCHA postseason tournament will make its eighth straight appearance at the X next March and regularly draws nearly 90,000 fans during the three-day event.

Obviously, St. Paul wouldn’t be the city we know today without the Wild and the X. Kudos certainly go to the entire Wild organization for the model franchise the have built while always staying referential to the state’s hockey culture.

All that being said, St. Paul just happens to be the largest of Minnesota’s many Hockeytowns. From tiny Taconite (pop. 315) to mighty Minneapolis (387,970) and every city, suburb, burg, hamlet municipality and whistle stop in between, we are a state of Hockeytowns.

There’s Eveleth – home of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. The small Iron Range town (pop. 3631) certainly has a right to call itself a Hockeytown as both John Mayasich and John Mariucci called Eveleth home before going on to become synonymous with hockey in the state of Minnesota and beyond.

An historical powerhouse in high school boys hockey, the Eveleth Bears have made 13 appearances in the state high school tournament, winning five titles.

Finally and perhaps most notably, Eveleth is home to the world’s second-largest hockey stick. What more evidence is needed that Eveleth is a Hockeytown?

But what about Bloomington? The former home of the North Stars and the MetCenter, the fourth-largest city in the state can claim Hockeytown status due largely to its 23 state tournament appearances between high schools Jefferson and Kennedy.

Minneapolis’ largest suburb is also home to the BloomingtonIceGarden, a training home of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Several NHLers also call Bloomington home, including Mike Crowley, Ben Clymer, Mark Parrish, Erik Johnson, Tom Gilbert, Dan Trebil and Peter Mueller.

That’s impressive, but what about the hockey tradition in Roseau? A town of only 2,879, the home of the Rams has produced a staggering number of elite hockey players. From two U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame players (Aaron & Neal Broten) to seven Olympians to nine players with NHL experience to 17 current pro, junior or college players, Roseau is a virtual breeding ground for hockey talent.

It comes as no suprise that the Rams own a record 31 state tournament appearances, seven state titles and 51 state tournament wins. 

If a powerhouse in hockey is what we’re after, then how about Edina? The adopted home of legendary coach Willard Ikola (he’s an Eveleth native), the Edina high school tradition is as strong as nearly any other. As a city, Edina has made 29 appearances in the state tournament, winning nine championships.

The home of the Hornets also boasts one of the largest youth hockey associations in the state (and maybe the country). Not only are the numbers strong, but Edina’s youth teams are forces to be reckoned with as evidenced by the 13 teams currently sitting in the top 10 in this week’s Let’s Play Hockey rankings.

By now, the residents of the original Hockeytown USA are fuming. Just four miles from the Canadian border, Warroad was Hockeytown USA 50 years before the Detroit Red Wings marketing gurus absconded with the name.

A town of just 1,739, Warroad has sent over 50 native sons to Divison I hockey programs since 1947 and is home to Olympians Gordon “Ginny” Christian, Billy Christian, Roger Christian, Dan McKinnon, Henry Boucha and Dave Christian.

Five Warroad natives – Henry Boucha,  Billy Christian, Dave Christian, Roger Christian and Cal Marvin – are members of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

In addition, the Warroad Warrior boys’ hockey team has captured four state championships and has made 18 combined appearances in the state tournament. 

Clearly, the Warrior hockey tradition  gives Warroad a claim to its long-held Hockeytown USA title.

Hockey tradition is alive and well in countless other communities throughout the State of Hockey.

There’s Baudette, home of former Gopher and current Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Keith Ballard and nearby Lake of the Woods – host of a pair of high school hockey games next Feb. 9, on Baudette Bay as part of the Second Annual Hockey Day Minnesota.

Don’t forget Duluth, home of several high school hockey powerhouses, including three-time champion Duluth East and current boys’ No. 1 Duluth Marshall. The seaport also boasts a rich college hockey tradition with the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs and its most famous alum, future Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull.

Serving as the the southern portion of the state’s top hockey town, Rochester  has, between four of its high schools, made 23 appearances at the state tournament, led by John Marshall’s six appearances and its shocking 1977 state championship.

Minneapolis can throw its name into the hat if only because it’s the home of the headquarters of Let’s Play Hockey. Seriously though, Minnesota’s largest city boasts a wealth of hockey amidst its nearly 400,000 residents. From the University of Minnesota men’s and women’s Golden Gophers to the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis to the numerous outdoor rinks at parks throughout the city, Minneapolis is as much a hockey town as any.

Beyond Duluth and Eveleth, the Iron Range owns a plethora of hockey towns, including Don Lucia and Bill Baker’s Grand Rapids, the Michelettis’ Hibbing and Matt Niskanen, John Harrington and the Hanson Brothers’ (Jeff and Steve Carlson) Virginia.

Northern Minnesota boasts even more hockey towns with International Falls (seven state titles), Moorhead (eight top three finishes) and Cloquet (home of NHLers Jamie Langenbrunner, Derek Plante and Corey Millen).

On the road back to the Twin Cities, you may drive past St. Cloud, home of the Huskies and the National Hockey Center.

Back in the metro area, hockey hotbeds abound with Roseville and South St. Paul’s rich boys and girls hockey history, White Bear Lake’s pedigree of natives such as Brian Bonin, David Tanabe and Moose Goheen, and newer hockey towns like Eden Prairie and Woodbury.

Almost anywhere you travel in the State of Hockey, you’ll find a town where hockey is king.

St. Paul may have the ceremonial label of Hockeytown USA, but we all know hockey in this state is about more than just one town. Both Hockeytown USA and The State of Hockey are really just brilliant marketing slogans, but the Wild’s slogan gets credit for capturing what Minnesota is all about – a state chock full of hockey towns.

Hockeytown USA may have a new home, but thanks to Sports Illustrated, the residents of Warroad, Eveleth, Edina, Roseau and countless other Minnesota hockey towns, may release their own list of what it means to be a hockey fan in their city, leading off with, “You get ticked off when you hear St. Paul call itself ‘Hockeytown USA.’”