Search this country as long and as hard as you’d like, but you are never going to find a state that loves hockey more than Minnesota.
Nowhere else within our borders will you find a place where hockey is so deeply ingrained in the culture and traditions of the people who live there.
All around the state, in all levels of the game, as far back as anyone can remember, one thing has always been true. Minnesotans eat, sleep, and breathe this game.
It is because of the hockey culture and traditions in the Land of 10,000 Lakes that Minnesota is called the “State of Hockey” today.
But don’t take my word for it, let me explain.
Minnesota’s Old Time Hockey
If you were to try and trace back to the beginnings of hockey in the state of Minnesota, you would have to focus your attention on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota. As immigrants settled in Northern Minnesota starting in the 1880s to mine the iron ore found in abundance there, their children played hockey to pass the time during the long, frigid winters.
As NHL.com columnist John McGourty puts it, “with nearly five months of skate-able ice, ‘The Range’ became the home of Minnesota hockey for decades”. And if spring comes late, that just means there is another month to play hockey. That is the mentality of those who live in Northern Minnesota.
Besides, in the early days there were only a handful of rinks in the Twin Cities, so teams from the Range dominated state hockey in the early days. Teams from Eveleth, Roseau, Duluth, Hibbing, International Falls, Grand Rapids, and Warroad all had dynasties in the early days of Minnesota hockey.
To put that into perspective, the city of Warroad, with a population of only around 1,700 people, gave us Bill and Roger Christian, who were members of the 1960 Gold Medal team and founders of Christian Brother’s hockey sticks. Warroad also gave us Bill’s son Dave, who was one of twelve Minnesotans on the 1980 US “Miracle on Ice” gold medal team (McGourty).
The city of Roseau, which has a population of around 2,700 people, has won six state hockey tournaments and has placed seven residents on US Olympic Hockey teams. The town’s website even opens with the sentence, “The first thing that comes to mind when the name Roseau is mentioned is ‘Hockey’” (McGourty).
Neal Broten, arguably the most famous player to come from Roseau, was also a member of the 1980 US “Miracle on Ice” gold medal team. On top of the gold medal, he also won a national championship with the Golden Gophers in 1979, and was the first recipient of the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation’s top college hockey player. After college, he had a successful NHL career, spending some time with the Minnesota North Stars and eventually winning a Stanley cup with the New Jersey Devils. To this day, he is the only hockey player to ever win a national championship, a gold medal, and the Stanley Cup. What a career!
However, undoubtedly the most beloved player to come from the iron range of Northern Minnesota grew up in the small city of Eveleth (which is also the home of the US Hockey Hall of Fame). That was the birth place of one of the “Godfathers of Minnesota hockey”, John Mariucci. After starring for Eveleth in high school, Mariucci joined high school teammate Sam LoPresti with the Chicago Blackhawks for two seasons before joining the military (McGourty).
After returning to the Blackhawks for three seasons after the war and being named captain for the 1947-48 season, he became the head coach for the University of Minnesota in 1952. He enjoyed a lot of success while coaching the Gophers, but his most successful team was the 1954 team led by John Mayasich, Dick Meredith, and the late Bob Johnson (who later became “Badger Bob” when he moved to Wisconsin to coach the Badgers). They made it all the way to the title game, only to lose to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 5-4 in overtime (McGourty).
Of all his accomplishments, John Mariucci will be most remembered for starting the tradition of using almost exclusively Minnesota born players on his teams, a tradition that lasts to this day. It is because of this, and for laying the foundation for what Minnesota hockey is today, that the current home for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Mariucci Arena, was named in his honor.
Even though teams from the Range dominated Minnesota hockey in the early days, the Twin Cities metropolitan area also produced it’s share of hockey legends back in the day. For those who aren’t hockey enthusiasts, you might not recall that in the early 1920’s a player by the name of Moose Goheen emerged from the St. Paul area and took the hockey world by storm. As a young kid, he led the US team to a Silver Medal in the first Olympic hockey tournament at St. Moritz in 1920. In 1952, he received the ultimate honor and became the first American born hockey player to be elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto (McGourty).
After Goheen, other famous and influential hockey personalities would emerge from the Twin Cities area as well. While John Mariucci was leading the Minnesota Golden Gophers to the NCAA Championship game in 1954-55, another future Gopher hockey coach was helping his St. Paul Johnson hockey team win a state championship that very same year. His name was Herb Brooks, another one of the “Godfathers of Minnesota hockey”.
After winning the State high school tournament with St. Paul Johnson in 1955, Herb Brooks tried out for the 1960 US Olympic hockey team and was the last player cut that year. He later played for the United States on the 1964 and 1968 Olympic hockey teams, where he played along side Lou Nanne, another “Godfather of Minnesota hockey” and Gopher great, but the gold medal he so badly desired eluded him for another decade.
In the mid-1970s, he became the coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers and led them to NCAA championships in 1974, 1976, and 1979. He also spent time coaching in the NHL, most notably when Nanne lured him into coaching the Minnesota North Stars during the 1987-88 season.
However, undoubtedly his most notable and important accomplishment was coaching the US Olympic hockey team to a Gold Medal in Lake Placid in 1980. More on that later.
Minnesota’s Hockey Culture
These early pioneers on the Minnesota hockey scene did more than just dazzle us with their skating and stick-handling prowess. They also laid the groundwork for a culture that exists to this day. It is a culture that not only loves hockey, but eats, sleeps, and lives it.
In a country where young kids grow up idolizing the stars of the NFL and Major League Baseball, Minnesota is different. In Minnesota, despite the popularity of the Vikings and the Twins, hockey remains the most popular sport.
Over the past decade, youth hockey registrations in the state of Minnesota have increased by 4,400 to over 45,000 registrations a year. Despite having a firm grip on the Minnesota psyche, hockey’s popularity continues to grow. This past year, over 10,000 teens played high school hockey in Minnesota. And it isn’t just kids who are playing. Overall, it is estimated that one in every 113 Minnesotans are on a hockey team (McGourty). Young and old, we all love this game.
According to NHL forward Jim Dowd, a New Jersey native, “People here love it from youth hockey all the way to the pros. They live and die hockey in Minnesota. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, the Range, there’s no real difference. It doesn’t matter where they are from. All over Minnesota, they love hockey” (McGourty).
Darby Hendrickson, a former Gopher and NHL forward who spent time with the Minnesota Wild agrees. In an article by Terry Frei for ESPN.com, Hendrickson says, “The Canadian guys who come through here say it’s like where they grew up”.
In an article on ESPN.com, Jess Myers takes it a step further. She relates the world of hockey in Minnesota to a “Bizarro World, where the highest level of the sport (the NHL) isn’t always the biggest, and the hometown hero who brings fans to their feet is sometimes too young to shave”. She’s right. Whether it’s a pro game or a PeWee hockey tournament, we just love to watch and play hockey.
Minnesotans are so enamored with hockey, that it works its way into almost every aspect of our life. In fact, former Minnesota governor Wendell Anderson, a member of the 1956 Olympic hockey team, used his hockey career to help him get elected governor. Just recently, our current governor Tim Pawlenty scheduled a hockey game as part of his inauguration (McGourty).
And other parts of the country are taking notice. People Magazine recently ran an article on the marriage of Krissy Wendell (a Minnesota Gopher and US Olympic hockey star) and John Pohl (also a former Gopher and current NHL hockey forward). The article characterized the union of the two as that of “hockey royalty”.
However, when trying to summarize the culture of hockey in Minnesota, perhaps Herb Brooks said it best when he said, “we think of ourselves as Southern Manitobans”. While we are all proud to be Americans, I do agree with Herb that our taste for sports more closely resembles our neighbors to the North.
We Start Young
How young? Put it this way, I don’t really remember learning how to skate. As soon as we learn how to walk, it’s time to learn how to skate. After all, everyone is playing, so the sooner your parents can get you on the ice, the sooner they can get back there.
In his 2003 book, Blades of Glory, about the Bloomington Jefferson (a suburb south of Minneapolis) hockey team who won five state championships between 1981 and 1994, John Rosengren says, “the average teenage boy thinks about sex every seven seconds; In Minnesota, he thinks about hockey the other six”.
I remember those Jefferson teams because I played against some. They produced NHL players Ben Clymer, Mark Parrish, Tom Kurvers, Mike Crowley, Dan Trebil, and Toby Peterson. Man were they tough!
That’s what people in other areas of the country don’t get. The key to the machine that is Minnesota hockey isn’t in an NHL franchise, or a college campus, but it’s within the strong youth hockey programs in the state. Unlike most places where kids grow up idolizing professional athletes, Minnesota kids grow up idolizing the stars of their high school hockey teams.
According to Bob O’Connor, USA Hockey Coach in Chief from Edina, Minnesota, “Minnesota goes against the national trend. All the kids in youth hockey want to play in the state high school tournament” (McGourty).
For example, after winning the NCAA championship with the Gophers in 2003, Gino Guyer was asked how winning the NCAA tournament compared to winning the state championship in Minnesota. Without hesitation, he responded, “This is amazing, but it’s different than high school because there you win with the guys you’ve known since you were little and who you’ve played with all your life.” He finished, “Still, winning this national title is an incredible feeling, and it’s almost as good as making it to state. Almost.” (Myers).
That is the way we are taught from an early age. In case you need more proof, consider an interview a hockey columnist did with Herb Brooks several years back. In his article, the columnist quoted Brooks as saying that winning a state championship for St. Paul Johnson was one of the best moments of his career.
After he read the article, Herb called the columnist and claimed that he was misquoted. According to Brooks, winning the state title was THE best moment. Even better than beating the Soviets in Lake Placid. Now that says something!
In this country, you have Indiana high school basketball, Texas high school football, and then there is Minnesota high school hockey. And the culmination of the Minnesota high school hockey season is the state hockey tournament. And what a tournament it is.
Widely recognized as one of the biggest state high school tournaments for any sport, let alone hockey, the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament draws over 100,000 spectators every year. Families take their vacations in March to watch the state tournament, and tickets for the “good seats” are handed down generation-to-generation (McGourty).
And it gets better. According to George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated, “Every game at the Xcel Energy center is televised by the local Fox affiliate, and the broadcasts feature such analysts as former NHL players Phil Housley and Tom Chorske”.
Former players and coaches return every year to watch their high school compete in the tournament. Should they make it, that is. A few years ago, when Wayzata high school made it back to the state tournament for the first time in 50 years, members of the 1954 team actually wrote a letter to the current squad explaining what their accomplishment meant to them. In fact, a large group of players from the ’54 team actually showed up in Trojans jerseys to cheer on their alma mater in person at the tournament. On the front of the jerseys it read, “50 years in the making” (Dohrmann).
However, the most telling example of how much youth hockey means to the state of Minnesota can found in the sacrifices that the area’s professional hockey team (the Minnesota Wild) is asked to make around tournament time. When tournament week comes, the Wild are forced to practice at local high schools while the high school kids get full use of the Xcel Energy Center. Now that says something!
At the end of the high school hockey season, the Minnesota State High School Hockey League (MSHSL) hands out an award for the top hockey player within the state. That player is awarded the title of Mr. Hockey. Nearly every player to be awarded that honor has gone on have an outstanding college career and to play hockey professionally in the NHL.
Former Mr. Hockey winners who have made it to the NHL include the likes of Nick Chorske, Trent Klatt, Joe Dziedzic, Darby Hendrickson, Brian Bonin, Mike Crowly, Erik Rasmussen, John Pohl, Jeff Taffe, Paul Martin, Marty Sertich, Tom Gorowsky, and Brian Lee.
Mr. Hockey winners who are still playing college hockey include the Univeristy of Minnesota’s David Fischer and Aaron Ness, and Wisconsin’s Ryan McDonagh. And how could I forget, this year’s Mr. Hockey winner Nick Leddy, from my hometown of Eden Prairie, MN. Nick helped bring Eden Prairie it’s first Minnesota state high school hockey championship this year, and will be wearing Maroon and Gold next season. I’m on cloud 9!
Still not sold on the power of Minnesota youth hockey? Take a look at the United States High School Hockey Organization’s rankings of the top high school hockey teams in the country. Minnesota has eight of the top 10, and 17 of the top 20 teams on that list. And that includes the prep schools, which are more prevalent out East. Like I said, Minnesota is a hockey machine. So where does all this hockey talent go?
We Bleed Maroon and Gold
Despite having five Division-I hockey schools, it is nearly impossible to keep all of Minnesota’s hockey talent in state. There are only so many scholarships to go around, and with the increasing popularity of the national development teams, it becomes increasingly more difficult to keep all our top talent at home.
A quick scan of the recent recruiting information shows that, in addition to going to schools in state, Minnesota hockey players are going to North Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska-Omaha, New Hampshire, Harvard, Vermont, Nothereastern, Providence, U-Mass, Army, Notre Dame, Alaska-Fairbanks, and Bentley the next few years.
I know this happens in every state, and with every sport, but take a look at your favorite college hockey team’s roster when you get a chance. I would be willing to bet that there is at least one player from Minnesota on that roster.
Of the five Division-I hockey schools within the state, the U of M (or “the U” as we call it in the Twin Cities) holds a special place in most Minnesotan’s hearts. After high school, it’s the place where most kids in Minnesota want to play. The school is drenched in hockey tradition, and most kids want to be a part of that. If you ever get the pleasure of visiting Mariucci Arena, come early and walk around the arena. The history that is on display is amazing to take in.
After losing in the NCAA finals in 1953, 1954, and 1971, the U of M finally won their first national championship under Herb Brooks in 1974. That team was led by Grand Rapid’s Buzz Schneider (1980 US “Miracle on Ice” gold-medal team member), Hill Murray’s Dick Spannbauer, Edina’s John Harris, and Hibbing’s Joe Micheletti (McGourty).
After winning the national championship in 1974, Joe Micheletti was quoted as saying, "it was the first time in the history of college hockey that a team comprised of only Americans won the national championship and we were all from Minnesota.” How amazing is that!
The Gophers and Brooks won the title again in 1976 with the help of Tom Vanelli, Warren Miller, Reed Larson, Tom Gorence, and Bill Baker (1980 US “Miracle on Ice” gold medal team member) (McGourty).
The final national championship of the Herb Brooks era at the U of M came in 1979. That team included seven members of the 1980 US “Miracle on Ice” gold medal team (Neal Broten, Phil Verchota, Eric Strobel, Mike Ramsey, Rob McClanahan, Steve Christoff, and Bill Baker) (McGourty). Wow, what a team!
After Brooks left, the Gophers were coached by, amongst others, Brad Buetow and then Doug Woog. Although the U of M didn’t win a national championship under either coach, they did produce some really good teams. Between 1979-1985, Buetow had a .689 winning percentage, and between 1985-1999, Woog had a .664 winning percentage. Most importantly, they stayed true to tradition and recruited primarily, if not exclusively, from within the state of Minnesota.
It wasn’t until a few years after Don Lucia arrived that the Gophers claimed a national title again. Lucia, a member of the Grand Rapids, MN state championship teams in 1975 and 1976, took over as coach in 1999 after having coached at Alaska and Colorado College. Under Lucia, the Gophers won national championships in 2002 and 2003. Although Minnesotans were excited about the championships, it wasn’t the same for some because not all the players were from Minnesota (McGourty).
I know some of you are probably saying to yourself right now, “come on, get off your high horse. Who cares if the team is only made up of Minnesotans. Drop the ego”. However, it’s not about ego. It’s about maintaining tradition. A tradition that was started a long time ago by John Mariucci, carried on by the likes of Glen Sonmore, Herb Brooks, Brad Buetow, and Doug Woog. We cherish those titles, and appreciate the work that Lucia is doing. It just would have been sweeter if the team was made up of only Minnesotans.
NHL forward and Minnesota native Ben Clymer relates, “Herb Brooks said I believe in the Minnesota hockey player, and I feel the same way”. He went on to say, “I think the U of M should have stuck with all Minnesota kids. I knew everyone in our locker room before I ever got there. I had a good idea my junior year in high school who my teammates might be at Minnesota. That was neat. I thought it was a unique thing to be able to do and I didn’t think there was a lack of talent issue.” (McGourty).
Besides the U of M, the U of M-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato, and Bemidgi State all have Division-I hockey programs.
Besides the Gophers, only the U of M-Duluth (UMD) has ever made it to an NCAA final. The 1984 University of Minnesota-Duluth team led by future NHL players Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson, and Norm Maciver made it to the finals, but lost to Bowling Green 5-4 in overtime. Although the Men’s hockey team has never won an national championship, the UMD women’s hockey team has four national championships, the most recent coming in 2008.
Saint Cloud State University (SCSU) made the move to Division 1 hockey for the 1987-88 season, and joined the WCHA in 1990-91. Frank Brimsek played for the Huskies in 1933-34 before going on to play with with the Boston Bruins and Chicago from 1938-50. He helped Boston win two Stanley Cup titles and he is a member of both the international and United State Hockey Hall of Fames.
Other former SCSU players to make it to the NHL include Sam LoPresti, Len Esau, Steve Martinson, Tyler Arnason, Casey Borer, Tim Conboy, Matt Cullen, Jeff Finger, Bret Hedican, Joe Jensen, Fred Knipscheer, Ryan Malone, Joe Motzko, Mark Parrish, Duvie Westcott, Mark Hartigan, Andreas Nodl, Nate Raduns and Andrew Gordon. Recently, Matt Cullen and Bret Hedican helped Carolina win the Stanley Cup in 2006, while Mark Hartigan and Joe Motzko played for Anaheim when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
Minnesota State University (MSU) in Mankato made the move to Division-I hockey more recently, and have been members of the WCHA since 1999. The MSU alumni who have gone on to play hockey in the NHL include David Backes, Ryan Carter, Tim Jackman, Jon Kalinski, Grant Stevenson, and Steven Wagner.
That brings us to Bemidgi State University (BSU). Even though BSU has played Division 1 hockey for the shortest period of time, that doesn’t mean the school is lacking in talent or tradition. As David Albright wrote in his article for ESPN.com, “This marks Bemidji's third trip to the NCAA Division I tournament, but it's the first year the Beavers won a game. Their history, however, is loaded with success. Try 13 national championships (7 NAIA, 5 Division II and 1 Division III) and nearly 950 games won".
So BSU is no stranger to success. And I will contend, their first line can skate with anyone, even with a school like Boston University. They have a veteran-laden team that is well coached, and they play strong defense. Their future is looking bright.
That is, unless they don’t get into the WCHA. As Albright writes, “the Beavers, who will be making their first Frozen Four appearance, come in representing College Hockey America, a league that will cease to exist after next season. So if Bemidji can't find a new conference to call home for the 2010-11 campaign, the program will likely cease to exist, as well.”
He goes on to say, “Bemidji has applied for membership in the WCHA, a conference that includes four fellow Minnesota schools (Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State) and nearby North Dakota. The biggest barrier to entrance into the WCHA would appear to be that Bemidji is the only school that officially applied for membership (three others inquired) and admittance would create a difficult-to-manage 11-team league.”
The 10 members of the WCHA will vote on BSU’s application later this month, and eight of 10 teams need to approve for BSU to gain admittance. My advice for the WCHA? LET BSU IN!
Now that I got that out of the way, lets move on.
Playing for Our Country
As the writers for Sports Illustrated once said, “it may just be the single most indelible moment in all of U.S. sports history” (Fitzpatrick). In a game that has become known as the “Miracle on Ice”, a young group of college kids from the United States defeated a highly-favored veteran squad from the Soviet Union.
To illustrate the significant of this accomplishment, the Soviets had dominated Olympic hockey since 1964, winning the Gold medal in 1964, ’68, ’72, and ’76. They had arguably the best players in the world at every position. In fact, six players from their team would eventually defect and become stars in the NHL. As an exclamation point, earlier that year they defeated the NHL All-Stars 6-0, and the Soviets had outscored their opponents 51-11 in the 1980 Olympics before playing the Americans.
The day before the game against the Soviets, NY Times columnist Dave Anderson wrote, “Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle, as did the American squad in 1960, the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold medal for the sixth time in seven tournaments”.
Well, as Al Michaels once exclaimed, “Do you believe in Miracles, YES!”. I do, and here is why this team holds an extra-special place in my heart. Twelve of the twenty players on that team were from Minnesota.
That list includes Steve Janaszak, Bill Baker, Dave Christian, Mike Ramsey, Neal Broten, Steve Christoff, John Harrington, Rob McClanahan, Mark Pavelich, Buzz Schneider, Eric Strobel, and Phil Verchota. There would have been thirteen if you include Mark Johnson, who was born in Minneapolis, but moved to Madison, WI when his father Bob took the coaching job with the Badgers.
The NHL Returns to Minnesota
And finally, we arrive at the highest level of hockey in the world, the National Hockey League.
Minnesota’s hockey culture and traditions haven’t always coincided peacefully with professional hockey teams in the past, but I think with the Minnesota Wild they finally got it right.
According to Ross McKeon of Yahoo Sports, since the Minnesota Wild opened their doors for the 2000-01 season, they have sold out 282 consecutive games. That includes every exhibition game (21 in all), every regular season game (251 in all), and every playoff game (10 total).
They are averaging 18,568 people per game in an arena that was only designed to sit 18,064 (McKeon).
But, like I said, professional hockey wasn’t always as embraced in Minnesota.
As Jess Myers explains, “One of the great failings of the NHL's first try in Minnesota, was that Stars' owner Norm Green could never fathom why college and high-school hockey were so often the focal point of the sports world in Minnesota. Those who refuse to suffer fools simply couldn't see the logic in paying $40 or more per ticket (plus parking) to watch mediocre pro games, when at a rink just three blocks away you could see kids locked in the emotion-filled battle of their lives for $3 (and the parking was free). “
Norm Green couldn’t understand that people cared more for high school and college hockey than they did for the pro teams. He never understood the Minnesota hockey tradition—a tradition where you embrace your own.
Myers goes on to explain how the Minnesota Wild have taken a different approach.
“In contrast [to the North Stars], much of the Wild's success is been due to the organization's efforts to embrace and involve all levels of hockey from all parts of the state in their marketing of the NHL. The arena's concourse features a sweater from every high school and college team in the state, and youth hockey players take to the ice between periods of every Wild home game, while updates on the best high school teams in Minnesota are shown during TV timeouts on the arena's video screen”.
They have even created a “Hockey Day” in Minnesota, in which they have several featured high school games, a Gopher hockey game, and then a Minnesota Wild game.
The response has been astounding.
This is a franchise that fits the “State of Hockey.” Finally, an owner who understands the people who live here.
It's All About a Love for the Game
If there has been one constant throughout the years, it has been Minnesota’s love for hockey.
We didn’t invent the game, and we certainly don’t own the game, but we do love and appreciate it like nowhere else in this country.
If you are still not convinced that Minnesota is entitled to be called the “State of Hockey”, let me leave you with a thoughtful endorsement from the most unlikely of places.
In his article for BCHeights, the student newspaper for Boston College, Joe Gravellese writes, “like the baseball fan’s trip to Fenway Park, the football fan’s journey to Lambeau Field, the music lover’s visit to Carnegie Hall, and the history buff’s walk along the Freedom Trail, every member of the great church of hockey should make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that is Minnesota”.
Thank you, Joe. We think just as highly of the hockey traditions in Boston.
Just don’t tell anyone I said that.
The State of Hockey, by John McGourty of Impact Magazine
New Hockeytown, USA, by Ross McKeon of Yahoo Sports
Minnesota Is the State of Hockey, by Terry Frei of ESPN.com
High School Heaven, by George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated
I’m in a Hockey State of Mind in Minnesota, by Joe Gravellese of the BCHeights
Hockey Roots Run Deep in Minnesota, by Jess Myers of ESPN.com
Bemidgi State Finally Takes Big Stage, by David Albright of ESPN.com
Bemidgi Excitement, by Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post
Blades of Glory: The True Story of a Young Team Bred to Win, by John Rosengren, Published 2003 by Sourcebooks