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There’s something about small-town Northern Minnesota that breeds a deep-seated love for hockey. Maybe it’s the abundance of lakes, maybe it’s the cold, long winters.
In Grand Rapids, though, hockey is more about pride and tradition than anything else.
Thousands of people pack the IRA Civic Center when the Thunderhawks play their home games. There’s assigned seating in the area to give season ticket holders an opportunity to sit in the same seat every night. Youth hockey players run around the concourses in head-to-toe orange and black garb. The team has several media outlets that follow its every move, including a local newspaper, a radio station and a website dedicated solely to Grand Rapids hockey.
Proud alumni stand along the railings at the top of the seating bowl, some with hockey credentials that include state championships, NCAA titles, NHL careers or Hobey Baker awards. The banners in the arena signify a connection to the not-so-distant past, when the “Halloween Machine” ran the Minnesota high school hockey scene.
It’s not hard to see that Grand Rapids is a hockey town.
“The tradition isn’t something we take lightly,” said Tim How, a former goalie for the Thunderhawks who is currently the man behind the Grand Rapids hockey website, GRHSHockey.com. “We have the upmost respect for those who played before us and those who play now. It’s not about yourself when you play at Grand Rapids, but it’s about the guy next to you. It’s one of those things where it doesn’t matter if you’re five or in high school, but anytime you put on that orange and black jersey, you have an honor to fulfill.”
That pride in the Grand Rapids “tradition of excellence” will be magnified this weekend, as the annual Hockey Day Minnesota will call Rapids home in 2013. The high school games will be played on Pokegama Lake, the first lake to host the event in several years, meaning outdoor hockey will be played in the purest location possible – on a pond.
Getting Hockey Day to Rapids
About 24 months ago, Sholom Blake, the Grand Rapids Hockey Day Minnesota Committee Co-Chair, joined with a group of other locals, the City of Grand Rapids and the school district to put together a bid for Hockey Day.
The Minnesota Wild and Fox Sports North invited Blake and other committee members to Moorhead for Hockey Day that year, and, as Blake says, it was an eye-opening experience, one that changed the plans for Grand Rapids Hockey Day entirely.
“We got to talk to a lot of people that organized the Moorhead event, and we resubmitted a proposal after that event,” Sholom said. “The one thing we learned when we were in Moorhead was that the Wild and FSN really wanted is back on a lake. They wanted to recreate the atmosphere from Baudette Bay, where it’s truly a pond hockey game. Our original proposal called for the game to take place at the old football practice field, but we got the impression from them that if we were to put this on a lake that we’d get it in 2013.”
So Blake and his committee members discussed possible locations on the way back to Rapids from Moorhead, and one location stuck out in the minds of everyone – Pokegama Lake.
“The three of us that went came back and had this discussion about putting it on Pokegama Lake,” Sholom said. “We really thought that made the most sense to us because Pokegama is a landmark in Grand Rapids. We got back to town before it was dark, drove out to the golf course, stood out on the deck overlooking what is the current location for Hockey Day and just thought that with the islands in the background and the snow-covered lake and all the activity that goes on out there, there’s no better spot to have this than where we’re standing right now. It took our breath away.”
Even so, picture perfect doesn’t always equal perfect.
“The lake is probably the least convenient place to put the event,” Sholom said. “It’s miles away from the arena, there’s not a lot of parking, it requires shuttle busses, it requires people to walk down to the lake… it’s going to be great, but logistically it probably added twenty to twenty-five percent more work to the whole event.”
Sholom and his committee were willing to take on the task of getting it completed, though, and they found that volunteers from the community weren’t hard to find.
“We’ve got the most wonderful group of people working together on this,” Sholom said. “It’s half hockey people and half non-hockey people, too. Everyone is more than happy to help, and we’ve had a tremendous amount of help from the City of Grand Rapids. Everyone has gotten on board to make this what we hope to be the best Hockey Day ever, the one that everyone strives to duplicate.”
Now that the rink, stands, tents and all other pieces of the site are in place, it’s just a matter of playing the games.
For Sholom, How and other Grand Rapids natives, that means it time to sit back, relax and enjoy the celebration of hockey and winter.
“This is really going to be what Grand Rapids hockey is all about,” How said. “It’s an honor for all of us who have played and dedicated time to the program, and it’s an honor to the community, even if they don’t like hockey.”
The Grand Rapids Community will proudly display its rich hockey tradition and history as host of Hockey Day Minnesota on Pokegama Lake on January 19, 2013. Now in its seventh season, Hockey Day has become a Minnesota tradition as a celebration of our hockey community and what some would describe as a way of life in the State of Hockey. Hockey Day is presented by the Minnesota Wild, FOX Sports North, Wells Fargo and the Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association.
High school games to be broadcast by FSN:
Evening games to be broadcast on FSN include: