Winter is upon us. And for the young (or old) sports fans from Minnesota, it can only mean one thing: hockey season.
To be completely honest, when I first moved to the Twin Cities I didn’t quite get all the excitement about hockey. So, I didn’t share NHL sports fans’ pain when Norm Green decided to move the North Stars to Dallas during the 1993-94 NHL season. (Hockey fans here still wear that chip on their shoulder with a sense of pride, donning North Stars jerseys to Minnesota Wild games, even though it’s been a dozen years since NHL hockey returned to St. Paul. Heck, the Wild stadium pro shop still sells the old team’s merchandise as if they never left. Hockey team loyalty runs deep. Again … don’t get it.)
I think the reason I don’t have the same Minnesota affinity for hockey is that I’ve never tried to play. Here, it seems like just about everybody plays. As a kid, my sports heroes didn’t wear skates. We couldn’t emulate what Wayne Gretzky did on the ice even if we wanted to. Here, high schools come equipped with their own ice rinks, and many girls and boys grow up playing in leagues, hoping to try out for their school’s team one day. Skating, passing, shooting, and even checking your best friend into the boards gives one an appreciation for what good hockey skills look like, for what good teams do. Here things are different; the “state of hockey” is really more than a marketing slogan for the Minnesota Wild. Here, those “10,000 lakes” become 10,000 ice rinks, and come winter kids of all ages still hit the ice to play pond hockey as it was meant to be played.
The pond hockey season culminates when thousands of fans and amateur teams gather from around the world for the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, which will take place this year on Lake Nokomis, Jan. 20-22, 2012. (Last year’s event drew more than 30,000 spectators to watch 300 teams compete on 22 rinks constructed on 80 acres of ice, representing the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany.) To kick off the season early, outdoor footwear and apparel retailer Timberland will host “Boots On, Face Off,” a boot hockey exhibition game in conjunction with the championships.
Update: This week’s Timberland event, “Boots On, Face Off” on Thursday, Dec. 8, has been postponed until January. Due to recent weather conditions in Minneapolis, the rink won’t be ready in time. Mother Nature is putting the event on hold until after the holidays! Check back for more information.
On Dec. 8, hockey notables will take to the ice sans skates—instead donning rugged Timberland boots for an unorthodox game at Bryant Square Park, one of the city’s premiere outdoor ice skating destinations. The game begins at 6 p.m., and is free and open to the public. Learn more at facebook.com/timberland. The park is not far from Timberland’s new signature store, which just opened last month in nearby Calhoun Square.
Team captains for when the Nor’ Easters take on the Lake Leaders next week are former NHL players Tom Chorske and Lance Pitlick. A Minneapolis native, Chorske started his storied hockey career at Minneapolis Southwest High School. He was named Mr. Hockey as the state’s most outstanding high school player in 1985, the inaugural year for the award. Chorske’s NHL career included stints for the Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils (he was on the team when they won the Stanley Cup), Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders, and Washington Capitals.
Pitlick graduated from Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope in 1986 and was drafted by the North Stars in the ninth round (again, the North Stars). After being drafted, he played for the University of Minnesota for four years before signing with the Philadelphia Flyers, Ottawa Senators, and Florida Panthers. His nephew, Tyler, plays today for the Edmonton Oilers.
If you need to take a break from holiday shopping, stop by and hear about “how hockey was meant to be played.” It might help you gear up for the big event in January, either as a spectator or participant. Maybe it will inspire you to go to a Minnesota Wild game and cheer on our local NHL team, or take a pilgrimage three hours Up North to the heart of hockey country in the Iron Range to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth to admire heroes past. Or, if you are like me, you can admire the sport from afar and appreciate it for what it means to a lot of sports fans and to the “state of hockey.”
Maybe I am starting to get it after all.