Hockey key part of Minnesota culture

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It is a workday in the smaller of the two Twin Cities, yet 17,000 people are filing into the Xcel Energy Center, many wearing hockey sweaters and the apparel of their favorite team.

Here at the home of the Minnesota Wild the colors most fans sport are not the red, white, yellow and green of the NHL team, but green and white, blue and white, black and red, blue and green, and orange and black.

On this Thursday, it's all about rooting for Edina, Blaine, Duluth East, White Bear Lake, Eden Prairie, Lakeville North, Eagan or Moorhead high schools in the state boys' high school hockey tournament.

"This tournament is what makes Minnesota hockey," said Sean Toomey, who played for Cretin-Derham Hall High School, the University of Minnesota Duluth and briefly for the Minnesota North Stars.

On this afternoon the fans got their money's worth: a 3-2 nail-biter and a double-overtime thriller. Those who came back for the evening session saw a dominant performance by the state's top-ranked team and a contest that was 1-0 for most of the game before a trio of late goals (including two empty-netters) made a 4-0 final appear distorted.

Two days later, St. Thomas Academy rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat Hermantown 5-4 for the Class A title and Eden Prairie beat Duluth East 3-2 in triple overtime to win the big school title.

"This is why I came back for this tournament, it's an incredible experience," said Eden Prairie's Kyle Rau, who scored the game winner and was named the state's Mr. Hockey the next day. In November, Rau said he was going to leave to play junior hockey, but changed his mind one day later. "It's pretty sad we don't get to do this again, but it's definitely been worth it."

In hockey-crazed Minnesota, the tournament could be mistaken for a holiday weekend. The arena, which will host this weekend's Frozen Four, is full for the Class AA games, television ratings remain strong and the excitement of the fans and players hasn't changed for decades.

"There's nothing like stepping onto that ice in front of 16,000 or 17,000 fans," said Neal Broten, whose name is on the Stanley Cup. Now 51, Broten but can't help but smile when looking back at his days of leading the Rams from Roseau, a small town about a slapshot away from the Canadian border, to St. Paul to play the powers of the Twin Cities suburban schools. "All the city towns supported us because we were the little punks on the block from a small little town, although we had a really great hockey tradition where I grew up."

Almost nothing will stop those with an opportunity to play on the game's grandest stage.

At the podium after his team's quarterfinal win, Eagan center Michael Zajac had redness in his eyes, coughed into his sleeve at least three times and sniffled throughout. "I'm not going to let a cold affect me," the junior said. "This is the state tournament. I've dreamed about playing in this since I was a kid."

From peewees to pros

Texas has its football, Indiana has its basketball and Iowa has its wrestling, but here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it is all about hockey -- from the time youth learn to walk through the high schools, five Division I men's and women's university programs and the Wild. The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum is in Eveleth on the state's Iron Range.

Minnesota has hosted NHL All-Star Games and international tournaments; the NCAA men's Frozen Four is back in the state's capital starting Thursday; the 2011 NHL draft is slated for St. Paul; and the women's Frozen Four is scheduled to return to Duluth and Minneapolis the next two years, cities that hosted the event in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

"There is no doubt that the State of Hockey is alive and well," said Tom Chorske, who grew up in Minneapolis and spent 11 seasons in the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 1995. "From border to border we see the game is being played and celebrated and we play at all levels and we watch."

Minnesota Hockey is the statewide governing body for the sport.

According to executive director Mike Snee, the organization oversees a nation-leading 53,000 players who strap on the blades, of which all but about 4,000 are age 18 or younger. Those numbers do not include the approximately 9,000 high school hockey players. Roughly one-quarter of the players are girls, easily outdistancing Massachusetts for top national honors.

"To see more than 60,000 kids playing hockey is just tremendous," Snee said. "Of the states we compete with, the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are Michigan, Massachusetts and New York. All three of those states have significantly larger populations. … Hockey is not a pastime in Minnesota, it's a lifestyle."

It's not just quantity the state has, there is much quality.

"There's nothing wrong with Minnesota hockey at all," said Dean Blais, an International Falls native, who was recently named coach of the 2012 U.S. National Junior Team.

Four Minnesotans were taken in the first round of last year's NHL draft and 19 were drafted overall, nearly 10 percent of all players taken. Five Minnesotans were on the 2010 U.S. Olympic men's team, the most from any state, and three were on the women's team, tying New York for the most. Sixty percent of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team was from Minnesota, and, coach Herb Brooks was, of course, a Minnesotan.

The University of Minnesota has won five national titles in men's hockey and two in women's. Minnesota Duluth has proved to be the premier program in NCAA women's hockey, garnering five national crowns. Each team has appeared in seven of the 11 all-time women's Frozen Fours. Eight male Minnesota collegians have won the Hobey Baker Award and one female, Krissy Wendell, won the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award.

"The competition has always been outstanding and it's only getting better and better," said Bret Hedican. Now working on television broadcasts for the San Jose Sharks, Hedican grew up in North St. Paul, played at St. Cloud State and won the Stanley Cup with Carolina during a 17-season NHL career.

"We take pride in the number of players that make it to the NHL, and D-I college, but I think what we take the most pride in is just the number of people that play," Snee said.

Starting young

Darby Hendrickson has lived Minnesota hockey at all levels. He grew up in Richfield, starred at the University of Minnesota and scored the first home goal in Wild history.

"I think you grow up early with a hockey stick in your hand," said Hendrickson, now an assistant coach with the Wild. "My son is 2. He doesn't even know what hockey is but he sees his brother and his sisters playing and he's doing it, so it's inherited. That's our culture."

In all corners of the state, the limited winter daylight hours after school and on weekends are often spent at a rink or on the ice of one of the state's frozen ponds or lakes. Drive through any town, it doesn't take long to find a garage door that has marks from tennis balls that were fired at a net -- and missed.

"I lived a block from an outdoor ice rink," Hedican recollects. "I'd carry my stick and skates over my shoulder and we'd play all day. My mom would come by with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and then we'd play all afternoon before putting my stick and skates back over my shoulder and go home."

Hendrickson can relate.

"Simple things like keep-away help you develop skills. It's amazing how that translates into puck possession, you're getting in shape, you're experimenting with moves. That's all I did and that's all a lot of kids in my neighborhood did. … That was the fun part of growing up. You wish you could be 10 again."

Snee said one of the best things about youth hockey in Minnesota is the pride that comes from representing your community.

"In Minnesota, we are what's called a community-based state, so you play where you live or where you go to school. You're not a free agent. You can't live in Eagan, but decide, 'I want to play over in Edina' and then go play in Edina," he said. That isn't the case in other states, such as Michigan, where Snee said the best players at each youth level play on elite club teams that have no community connection.

"They don't have a big state high school hockey tournament. The state tournaments for bantam and peewee aren't nearly as big a deal as they are in Minnesota. … In Minnesota you really see how big a deal it is that hockey is such a part of the community here, whereas in other places where hockey is big, Michigan, Massachusetts, it's not nearly as connected to the community."

Crazy for the colleges

The University of Minnesota likes to call itself Minnesota's Pride on Ice.

Although the Golden Gophers have uncharacteristically missed the NCAA tournament the past three seasons, collegiate hockey is still doing very well at other schools.

Minnesota Duluth is in this year's Frozen Four and Bemidji State made a magical run to the 2009 Frozen Four as the No. 16 seed. At both northern Minnesota locales, the Bulldogs and the Beavers are often the talk of the town. Each opened a new rink this season.

Although they don't often fill up their home rinks against out-of-state foes, when it's an intrastate game -- especially against the Gophers -- both St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State University Mankato are usually playing in front of large, raucous crowds. As in other schools in the state, the student sections are more than a little vocal to the opposition.

Eric Tjenstrom, a senior at the University of Minnesota, said the atmosphere at college games is more fun than being at a pro game. "I just like going in with my friends, especially when I'd go to places other than Mariucci Arena," he said. "Duluth was probably my favorite time. All their fans were into it."

Some would argue Minnesota college hockey fans have more hockey awareness because of the tradition and connection that people feel to a program.

"Gopher fans are really knowledgeable with the team, whereas at Wild games the people don't seem to care as much and it's just the general experience of going to a pro game," said Hank Long, a university alum, who still goes to a few games a year.

Honoring the state's zaniness

Prominently displayed on the Wild's website is a slogan the team continues to follow: "Tradition: It's In Our Blood."

From the moment it was announced in June 1997 that Minnesota was getting a franchise to replace the North Stars, who fled south on Interstate 35 to Dallas in 1993, the Wild organization has taken the lead in focusing on what the game means to Minnesota.

It created a Wild anthem and the "State of Hockey" moniker, something the organization lives by every day.

"Our fans indicated they are very proud of the tradition and heritage and passion that is Minnesota hockey, and they just wanted us to honor it and be a good citizen of it. That's what we've tried to do," said chief operating officer Matt Majka. "This brand platform has resonated so well because it came from the fans.

"When we came up with the words we had to decide how the 'State of Hockey' looks. We started thinking about that and thinking about how the arena would look. It's all about supporting the infrastructure that was well in place well before we came along and just adding to the pride that Minnesotans feel about hockey."

Throughout the suite level at the "X," but visible from the main concourse, hang sweaters for all high schools playing the sport. Near one gate are the dozen sweaters of teams from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and another gate features a tribute to the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Memorial awards that go to the top Division I men's and women's hockey players, respectively.

Along one wall is a box celebrating the team's first win and another display showcases Hendrickson scoring the first home goal in team history.

"It's a unique goal, but there was so much going on that night celebrating the whole state," he said. "As fun as that goal was it was just fun to be part of this franchise."

For the fans, it still is. And it should be, especially with a large No. 1 sweater hanging from the rafters, retired by the team before its first home game. It wasn't something the fans clamored for, but it was more of an internal commitment to have a symbol that stood for the franchise's commitment to the community, Majka said.

Despite limited success -- just three playoff appearances in 10 seasons -- the first 409 home games in team history, including preseason and postseason, were sellouts.

"We are so fortunate to have a fan base that is that loyal, that passionate and that committed to hockey in Minnesota," Majka said. "We just have to improve this product and continue to earn their support. Eventually we're going to have a heck of a party when we win a Stanley Cup. This state's going to have some fun on that day."

But first, the state will be the host with the most for the Frozen Four.

Nothing less would be expected.

Mike Cook is a freelance writer in Minnesota.

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