Northern Minnesota rink rats
Posted by Dean Holden at February 4th, 2014
by Jack Blatherwick, 30 January 2014
Next week, T.J. Oshie will represent Warroad High School on the U.S. Olympic hockey team in Sochi, Russia. He’s likely to be one of the tournament’s real impact players on big ice, because of the speed and passion that have always characterized his play. Oshie was born and raised in Washington state, but his grandfather and a cousin (Henry Boucha) played for Warroad, so T.J. decided to play there, too.
In 10th, 11th and 12th grades, Oshie scored 241 points, including three goals and four assists in the State High School Tournament his sophomore year when he led the Warriors to the championship. Now, as a leader on one of the best teams in the NHL, the St. Louis Blues, he is mobbed by autograph-seekers each time he enters and leaves an arena. This probably reminds him of his high school days at Warroad’s Gardens Arena, where local kids lined up for his autograph, dreaming of the day they’d wear the high school uniform.
A decade later, the high school team is having another dream season as they head into the playoffs. The Warriors are led by a high-scoring line that epitomizes the word ‘synergy,’ because all three forwards think alike and use each other to make things happen.
And they really make things happen! Together they already have nearly 100 goals, and the total is climbing fast. Individually, they are 1, 2, 3 in the state in total points: Kobe Roth (36-39–75), Jared Bethune (29-45–74), Kyle Sylvester (28-43–71). If we add two players from nearby rival Roseau (Alex Strand and Zach Yon), this means five of the top eight scorers in the state come from two neighboring towns with a combined population of only 4000, but a hockey history that is unmatched anywhere in the United States.
Why the success of northern towns (all across Section 7 and 8) for more than 70 years, and still going strong? Ask any of the locals, and the answer is, “Ice time.” It’s all about Rink Rat hockey in facilities financed and built by local volunteers. Five arenas in the Roseau-Warroad communities offer virtually unlimited access for young players who want to follow in the footsteps of local heroes who went on to college, NHL and Olympic careers. It should surprise no one that Roth, Bethune and Sylvester have been among the most consistent, hard-working players to take advantage of the ‘open hockey’ opportunities.
This tradition will be on the world stage of international television in a couple weeks, because there are two representatives from the same small Warroad High School class of 2005 wearing red, white and blue uniforms in Sochi. Besides Oshie, Gigi Marvin will play in her second Olympic Games. A decade ago, Gigi ignited an explosion of passion in Warroad that led to the bright future of girls’ hockey. In seven years of David Marvin’s coaching (yes, another Marvin; after all, it’s a small town) the girls’ high school team has a record of 175-25-6 with two state championships.
In a humble, but realistic way, Coach David (who played for the University of North Dakota) would tell you, “We win because we have a lot of talent.” But, why so talented, we might ask? “They put in their time on a rink with no coach around.”
It’s the same simple formula in small towns all over Northern Minnesota and Canada. Unstructured ice time for trial-error-fun that leads to the most important skills in hockey: rink sense and keep-away puck protection.
Participation in a season of hockey is nearly free, certainly not as costly as in the suburbs, where hockey means expensive ice rental, highly-structured practices, and big-production tournaments. ‘Northern Hockey’ is different for many reasons. Besides the lower cost that allows everyone to participate, another advantage is fewer participants. Yes, bigger is not always better.
For example, in suburban tryouts for Bantams or PeeWees, there could be more than 100 candidates at each age. There is such a vast range of maturity, size, strength and speed that quite often the most mature athletes make the top teams, and smaller players are left out – only because they are not yet physically developed. On the other hand, in a small town, no one is left out, so smaller players must learn to compete on the basis of skills and creativity. Later in life, size does not matter as it does at 10-14 years of age. Picture the Roseau High School line of Broten, Erickson and Broten, who each became creative geniuses in a game of NHL giants.
Smaller, creative playmakers developed into legends from many Northern Minnesota towns – way too many to number, but the history is rich. Another Rink Rat, Mark Pavelich of Eveleth High School and 1980 Olympic fame, was probably the smallest player in the NHL, but in his first year with the New York Rangers, he was the team’s MVP.
Consider the advantage a sports car has over a Jeep in a test of agility, and you can see the advantage Pav had over tall defensemen around the league who got their legs twisted into knots trying to catch him when he changed directions on a dime. He shocked the NHL establishment because of his Northern Minnesota creativity, plus an incredible skating stride that didn’t deteriorate in a three-hour NHL game. After all, three hours of skating didn’t begin to match a typical day of hockey on an Eveleth pond.
Billy and Roger Christian from Warroad were stars on the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal team in Squaw Valley, Calif. Several years ago, I sat next to Billy, watching a Bantam state tournament game between Roseau and an excellent suburban team. One of the suburban players was small, crafty and skillful – clearly one of the most creative players on the ice. “He plays like a northern kid,” Billy remarked. “I wonder how he learned to play like that?”
I had a chance to work with the creative kid in dryland training the next summer, and told him what Christian had said. “It comes naturally,” he responded, much as the current trio of Warroad leaders might.“I go to the pond to work on skills almost every day of the winter.”
So I have a suggestion. If we want to increase the opportunities for creativity and fun in the Twin Cities area to match those in Northern Minnesota and Canada, we adults have to be more creative. We can do this while reducing the cost per player. Yes, I hear your question: “How can you provide more opportunities and reduce the cost?” Well, no one ever trusted me for a dime’s worth of financial advice, but stick with me for a minute, and I’ll prove it.
For a relatively small investment, we can build dozens of inexpensive arenas for open hockey, skill development and for loosely supervised scrimmages. Charge only enough rental fees to keep the lights on. Cover these arenas with fabric roofs. Forget about architects, fancy entryways and facilities for spectators. This is bare bones stuff, like port-a-potties. We don’t need more full-size rinks, so these buildings can be small, but functional in size. And based on the present weather alone, I’m betting refrigeration systems won’t be necessary for the next century while global warming is inching its way toward Minnesota.
Now, here’s the deal: In early spring these buildings become a wonderful field house that can be rented to youth soccer and lacrosse for nine months. These fanatics will get in line to rent artificial turf in a covered building, so let them pay for the development of ‘Northern Rink Rat Hockey’ in Southern Minnesota.