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Elk River: Hockey City Minnesota?


By Alyssa Hollenback

Combine being named the host of Hockey Day Minnesota 2014 and the continued growth of its youth hockey association, and it turns out that Elk River just might be Hockey City Minnesota. Association president Lyle Slawson attributes the growth of the organization to the Skate to Learn program that was established five years ago. This program, which is completely free, provides 10 one-hour sessions on Sundays throughout the season.

“The organization hires professional instructors, provides free gear and gives skaters from a wide variety of backgrounds the opportunity to hit the ice,” Slawson said.

Before implementing the program, the association was seeing about 30 new skaters per year, but with the help of the Skate to Learn program, the number is nearly triple that, with 90 new skaters a year – and a retention rate of 70 percent.

Another notable difference between the ERYHA and its counterparts is the grassroots approach the association has taken. To promote the Skate to Learn program, fliers are run in community papers, advertisements are placed in local companies and word-of-mouth is relied upon to continue to keep the hype up. In an effort to keep the momentum rolling, Slawson plans to provide information regarding the program to every household in the community of about 23,000 residents. A referral bonus of sorts even exists within the community, with the association providing a 25% ice fee discount for each skater referred. With nearly 700 registered skaters for 2013-14, the Elk River Youth Hockey Association has proven that these combined are effective.

Mite Director Reggie Berg also attributes the continued success of the ERYHA to the implementation of the American Development Model (ADM) pioneered by USA Hockey. In Elk River, the model has served as a tool to help ensure that every skater will have a chance to succeed. Associations that have utilized the model have noticed increased retention rates, thanks to the guidelines specifically designed to help kids reach their full potential. The ADM is based on long-term athlete development (LTAD), which allows coaches to integrate training, competition and recovery into their programs. LTAD principles can be used as a basis onto which existing systems and structures are made more consistent.



“Implementing this model was the only way to handle the growing number of players,” Berg said.

This model is helping contribute to ERYHA’s retention rate as well, by offering equal opportunity for recreation and competition, “the key to retaining younger players,” according to the Elk River Mite Director.

The success of the Elk River Youth Hockey Association got the attention of the Let’s Play Hockey community as well. LPH ran a contest for the month of September that asked participants to vote for the top youth hockey association in the state (LPH selected the top association in each district based on enrollment numbers). After the voting concluded, the Elk River Youth Hockey Association was the runaway winner with more than 3,000 votes, earning the association 20 pairs of gloves from Bauer.

This state-wide recognition is further proof that the ERYHA is a true success story. The tight-knit hockey community can even boast several athletes who have gone through the program to reach the highest level in hockey – NHL stars Nate Prosser, Paul Martin, Dan Hinote and Joel Otto were all born and raised in Elk River.

This success has even caught the eye of the Minnesota Wild and Fox Sports North, who named the Elk River the host of its Hockey Day Minnesota 2014. The Elk River community will proudly display its historic hockey tradition at the Handke Pit on Jan. 18, 2014. This day runs in cooperation with the Wild and Fox Sports North and will feature over 21 hours of consecutive hockey-related programming from PeeWees to the pros. Now in its eighth season, Hockey Day has become a Minnesota tradition and the host city exemplifies the way of life in the “State of Hockey.”

Being named Hockey Day Minnesota host has proven to be both a personal and professional achievement for Elk River superintendent Mark Bezek, who worked diligently for three years to rally on the part of his city, a “laborious process” as he puts it. He maintained persistent communication with Hockey Day Minnesota officials, aiming to prove that the city had a unique site and a driven community.

“Overall the event and the process in general are coming along really well,” according to Bezek, who aims to set his city apart from previous HDM hosts.

Elk River plans to take the celebration of hockey to a whole new level, turning Hockey Day Minnesota into Hockey Week Minnesota. All of the community’s high school students will be participating in the week’s festivities and Elk River youth teams will be playing leading up to Saturday’s main event.

The site of HDM 2014 is another unique feature Elk River brings to the table, a site that has a legacy beginning in the 1900s. Handke Pit, affectionately known as “The Pit” is a natural, glacier formed bowl stadium that has been the home rink to thousands of hockey players from beginners to NHL stars for more than a century. After being officially dedicated in 1925 and enlarged under the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal, the Pit is proudly listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites.



Bezek took time to reflect on the site by reading a letter written by the district’s first superintendent, who mentioned the Pit as the site of all football, baseball and hockey games. When asked what impact the Pit had on his personal experience, Bezek remarked, “This is the site of a lot of good things for the Elk River community. On any given chilly night, it is a winter wonderland for skaters, sled riders and hockey players – it looks like something from a Norman Rockwell painting.”

Bezek attributes much of the event’s smooth preparation to the community effort, a real point of pride for the people of Elk River. In order to plan for HDM, a steering committee was put together, consisting of the school district, the city, the youth hockey association and the chamber of commerce. Overall, there are more than 150 people working on this event, proving that pulling off such an event really is a team effort.

This widespread effort and enthusiasm seems to be the common thread holding this hockey community together. With a strong community support system, a growing youth organization and now playing host to the largest hockey event of the year, it seems that there are no bounds to what the Elk River Youth Hockey Association can do.