Andrew Vitalis

Hockey in Every State

... and Canadian province. Fridley native Jeff Keacher is on an amazing quest to play hockey in all 50 states and 10 Canadian provinces in six months

By Andrew Vitalis

Let’s Play Hockey

There Jeff Keacher was, standing in the hot Nevada sun, enjoying the Las Vegas strip. There he was taking in the sights and sounds of one of the most famous atmospheres in the world.

There he was standing in front of hundreds of locals and tourists alike, in hockey pads. No, not handing out hockey pads or even trying to sell them – he was actually standing there dressed in hockey pads.

It’s just one of many, OK hundreds, of stories Keacher has been able to share from his current rink adventure; a six-month hockey tour taking him to all 50 states and all 10 Canadian provinces with the goal of playing hockey in all of them. The journey began last June in Fridley, Minn., and barring any unforeseen hurdles, will end back in Minnesota in late December. Needless to say it’s been a memorable experience.

Read more: Hockey in Every State

Ben Gordon: a jack of all trades on the ice

By Andrew Vitalis

Let’s Play Hockey

As it turns out, the Minnesota state high school hockey “experience” truly does cross borders, city limits and even time zones. Ben Gordon, a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalist and Gopher hockey standout, remembers being glued to his computer to watch the 2011 Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. As he puts it, the tournament consumed his day.

He even found himself watching the games on the internet, sometimes just hours before he was scheduled to take the ice as a member of the Reading Royals of the ECHL. After that, it was the WCHA Final Five, then the NCAA Tournament; all taking place in the land of 10,000 lakes.

Read more: Ben Gordon: a jack of all trades on the ice

Hockey is a family affair for the Rau household

By Andrew Vitalis

Let’s Play Hockey

 

If you look in the Eden Prairie hockey dictionary under the name Rau, you will most likely find words like “tradition,” “dedication” and “dynasty.” Strong words, yes, but very appropriate.

The Rau name has been donning the back of an Eden Prairie uniform for 10 years and is a constant in the Eagle record book. Matt and Chad played for the Eagles’ 2003 state tournament team. This season, twin brothers Kyle and Curt, both seniors, have helped Eden Prairie to the section championship and another shot at a state tourney.

The Eagles faced Wayzata for the Section 6AA crown on Wednesday night. For parents Mike and Lynne, the section title game will be yet another hectic experience to watch from the stands, although they certainly have been there before.

“We enjoy it,” Mike said. “You still get nervous for the kids; you get excited for them because you know what’s at stake. I think you understand the process better after going through it. It’s fun seeing the kids have success.”

It has been, and continues to be, a family affair. Ironically, if not for a career move in 1996, the Rau family could have landed elsewhere. Mike, who played high school hockey at Edina and baseball at the University of Minnesota, remembers a work transfer which brought him to Minnesota from Chicago.

Mike and Lynne looked at houses in Edina and Bloomington before landing in Eden Prairie. To the Raus, it was a simple twist of fate. To some Eagle hockey fans, that decision was aided by the hockey gods themselves. The rest, as they say, is history.

Matt, the oldest, burst onto the hockey scene in 2001, followed shortly by Chad. Chad’s time was short lived. The talented winger spent just two seasons at the high school level before moving onto the USHL to play with Des Moines.

During that short time in an Eden Prairie uniform, Chad proved to be one of the best players in the state, and along with brother Matt, helped the Eagles advance to the state tournament. Chad eventually starred at Colorado College while Matt went on to play for St. Olaf.

Serving as “stick boys” for Matt and Chad’s hockey teams were two more Raus, twin brothers Kyle and Curt. To date, it’s debatable whether or not the brothers have put the hockey sticks down.

“We were always at the rink. Our first word was ‘hockey,’” laughed Curt, an Eden Prairie senior defenseman. “We started playing at a young age. We were always around the rink watching our brothers so it was just natural for us to start playing the game.”

“When we were younger, we were always going to our brothers’ games,” added Kyle, a senior center. “I think we were three or four at the time.”

“They went to a lot of hockey games when they were young,” Mike said. “They were exposed to the game early and I think it has turned out to be an advantage for them. There has always been a little rivalry between the siblings. They push each other in their own way and I think that’s been good.”

Competition has certainly been a constant in the Rau household. For years, the backyard was equipped with an outdoor rink. That rink served as a classroom for the brothers.

Mike remembers Christmas Day tournaments and endless, let’s say, brotherly disagreements.

Even so, the goal was always to improve and inspire. As it has turned out, that classroom, along with a penalty box full of support from their parents, has netted great results.

“We kind of exposed the kids to hockey but they were the ones who decided to take it to the next level; that’s what they decided they wanted to do. That’s been their passion,” Mike said.

“We are always honest with each other. If someone’s not doing well, we get on their case and try to work through whatever the problem is,” Curt said, when asked about his relationship with his brothers. “I remember doing a lot of one-on-one drills on the outdoor rink and taking part in shooting competitions with them. It’s fun because there is a little sibling rivalry there but it acts as a good thing. I think we have learned to never take anything negative on the ice. If we had an argument off the ice, we would patch things up on the ice.”

Chad, currently a member of the Houston Aeros of the AHL, played four seasons in the WCHA for Colorado College. He was named to the All-WCHA first team twice.

Meanwhile, Kyle has committed to play for the University of Minnesota and is widely considered to be one of the top prospects in North America. When Kyle broke the Eden Prairie scoring record, Kyle called Chad to rub it in. Chad responded by reminding his younger brother that he only spent two seasons at EP, adding that the record would have been his if he would have played another season of high school hockey. Ah, brotherly love.

“Who doesn’t want to have more accomplishments than their older brother,” Kyle said, who is tied for 10th in the state in scoring with 69 points this season and is a Mr. Hockey finalist. “I remember he would always come home with all of his awards from Colorado College and put them on the dresser for everyone to see. It was kind of a fun motivator for me.”

That motivation continues to drive the twins. Already with one state title under his belt, Kyle would like nothing more than to add a little hardware of his own to his dresser.

With one game standing between the Eagles and the state tourney, Kyle and Curt aren’t ready to hang up their high school skates just yet. Both played a part in the Eagles’ section semifinal win over Minnetonka by scoring a goal and would love to keep that momentum going. They are also well aware of what their brothers have accomplished on the ice before them and are ready to carry on the family tradition.

“People reminded us when we were growing up about our brothers and I think that ended up helping us. I think it drove Kyle and me to be better,” Curt said.

“Just going to all of those games, watching my older brothers play, you would see what types of things you would have to work on yourself,” Kyle said. “I would ask them a bunch of questions about things. Being able to do that has been really important for me.

“(My family) has always kept me humble. They have always reminded me that there are other guys out there who are better than I am and knowing that pushes me to get better.”

Win or lose, there will be no regrets for any of them. The Rau family has been a staple in the Eagle hockey program for years and they’ve loved every minute of it. Now, with their varsity hockey career nearly complete, things have officially begun to change around the Rau household.

Certainly a lot of hockey is ahead of the family, but the conversation around the dinner table at family get-togethers has changed. It’s become obvious that their dedication to one another goes well beyond the hockey rink. As Kyle puts it, hockey has become an excuse to see each other.

With Matt, now a fourth-year medical student at Creighton University, and Chad, a second-year pro in Houston, Mike and Lynne have become accustomed to watching from a distance. The brothers will spread out even more next season as Kyle takes his talents to the University of Minnesota and Curt plans on tackling junior hockey.

“We don’t see each other as much as we used to,” Mike said. “The kids have gotten older, have other interests. When (Curt and Kyle) were young, every conversation revolved around hockey. Now, when we all get together, we rarely talk about it. They just enjoy each other’s company and talk about life.”

In other words, instead of a pickup game in the backyard, the Raus will simply settle for a family photo. Of course, they’ll probably all be wearing skates.

 

History at the Hippodrome

By Andrew Vitalis

Let’s Play Hockey

Fifty years. It’s been five decades since International Falls and Duluth East met for the Region VII final and the stories are still being told. It was, and continues to be, a “where were you when” moment for everyone associated with the game. Still today, Mike “Lefty” Curran, then a junior goaltender for International Falls, is asked about that historic night at the Hippodrome in Eveleth.

“I talk to people in their mid-50s who tell me where they were that night or what they were doing,” Curran said. “They talk about being in the stands when they were five or six years old and they still remember that game like it was yesterday. The whole thing was pretty incredible.”

Read more: History at the Hippodrome

Resurrecting the St. Paul Highland Park Scots

By Andrew Vitalis

Let’s Play Hockey

 

When the St. Paul Highland Park Scots walked off the ice Tuesday night after falling to Chisago Lakes 13-2 in the first round of the Section 4A playoffs, there wasn’t a single Park player who was hanging their head. There wasn’t a single fan in the stands disappointed in the Scots’ 2010-11 body of work, and there wasn’t one person associated with the program who wondered what could have been.

To everyone involved with the program, the Scots took down their most significant obstacle on December 1 when they stepped on the ice for the first time as a varsity hockey team since the 1987-88 season. Anything after that would have been a bonus. Sure, wins are nice, but at Highland Park, success is measured differently these days; at least for now.

“I didn’t realize there was such a gap between seasons until I heard that before the season started. That was pretty exciting,” Scots head hockey coach Tom Doyle said. “Hopefully, years down the line, the kids will look back on this season and realize they were a part of this. It’s a starting point. Wins are nice, but right now, it’s about improving every game and having fun. I have really been proud with what I have seen.”

“We knew it was going to be a process,” Pat Auran, Assistant Principal at Highland Park Junior High, said. “Of course, you would like more wins but we knew there was going to be some growing pains. We are going about things the right way and I think that’s important.”

Now with one season in the books, looking back on the process gives you even more of an appreciation of how everything came to be. Rewind the clock three years ago.

Pat Anderson, Highland Central Hockey Association president, and Auran, began working on the idea of resurrecting the Highland Park hockey program. Encouraged by strong numbers in the youth system, both thought the numbers were large enough to make it work.

They were right. From there, a junior varsity team was developed and a timeline was established.

“I was approached by people from the Highland Park hockey association about the idea,” Auran said. “I remember when I played at Highland (1982 graduate), we had two Bantam teams. They had four Bantam teams that year so I was pretty confident we had the numbers to do it.

”I remember going classroom to classroom, asking kids if they would be interested and we found out there was enough interest to move forward. We decided to establish a junior varsity team and after two years, we would move to the varsity level.”

Enter Brandon Ferraro who agreed to coach the junior varsity team for that pivotal two-year stretch. Although he knew he was going to step aside once the Scots moved to the varsity level, Ferraro used his time to prepare his underclassmen for the future.

Part of that responsibility included helping to find a head coach that would be a perfect fit for the program. He found that coach in Tom Doyle.

Citing Doyle’s experience as the junior varsity coach for Minneapolis East, along with his passion for coaching, Ferraro and the Highland Park hockey community didn’t hesitate. As they say, the rest is history as Doyle was eventually named the first boys’ head hockey coach at St. Paul Highland Park in more than 20 years.

“It was really important to find a coach, a little younger, who has experience coaching,” Ferraro said. “I knew Tom from his time at Minneapolis so I knew he had that experience. It was also important to find a guy who was going to emphasize fun and improvement as opposed to someone who was going to come in and expect wins right away. I recommended Tom to the district and they eventually hired him.”

Doyle, who calls himself a “city guy”, jumped at the chance. He played high school hockey for St. Paul Como and has seen the reemergence of inner-city hockey first hand.

Now one season in, Doyle looks back at his rookie campaign and grins with pride. Despite finishing the season with a 0-24 record while playing as an independent, he noticed improvement every time his team took the ice.

At times playing with a skeleton crew thanks to injuries, the Scots’ dedication to the game and each other made it easy for Doyle to come to work. And the improvements came in waves.

During the second week in February, the Scots lost by one goal in back-to-back games. The two losses where the closest Highland Park came to winning all season, and not surprisingly, they were the Scots’ final two games of the regular season.

That two-game stretch was also the best the Scots had done offensively all year, scoring a combined 11 goals. To put that into perspective, Highland Park finished the season averaging just over two goals per game.

If improvements were what Doyle and company had been looking for, they got it.

“To see the kids’ character throughout the season was amazing,” Doyle said. “The entire season, the kids knew where they were at. They knew we weren’t going to have a kid score 50 points. Each practice, the kids simply worked on improving their skills and getting better.

“My mentality has always been positivity; being positive wins out over everything else. Negativity will shut a player down. We talked all season about picking each other up, being positive and offering constructive criticism. It’s hard sometimes when you don’t see the results on the scoreboard, but we tried to win the small battles.

“When we were playing, we concentrated on winning that period and tried to build on those little improvements. When you have a group of kids like we had this season, it was easy to have that mindset. They deserve a lot of credit.”

“I remembered when I played, one season we won only one game and that was the best coach I ever had,” Auran said. “We had fun and that’s what it’s about. It was a great learning experience. Having fun and getting better is what’s important.”

In other words, a model was developed that will be used for years to come. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a program ... again.

With just six seniors on the team, most of the roster will take their 2010-11 experience into next year. While expectations will certainly be higher, the basics will remain the same. After all, St. Paul Highland Park plans on sticking around for quite some time.

“It’s been a great experience for me. It’s been great for all of us,” Doyle said. “They really came together (as a team) and that’s nice to see. They came together as a team and learned to appreciate one another. I don’t think the importance has been lost on any of them.

“It’s a starting point. You hope the program grows; the competition within the program grows. Through that, things are going to get better and wins are going to start coming.”

“You don’t always have to look at winning and losing when it comes to success. You can measure success in many different ways,” Anderson said. “The same number of kids finished the season as started the season. There wasn’t a single player who quit and that says a lot.

“When you look at where these kids have come from, that’s really important. I like to think that as long as the kids keep showing up, we should be able to maintain this. It’s a building process. Hopefully next year we’ll win a few games, keep on improving and go from there.”