by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
After all the buildup, the months of anticipation after being chosen as the site for Hockey Day Minnesota 2014, the construction of a first-class outdoor rink in the middle of town, the Twin Cities press descending on the Handke Pit for preview stories, after dozens of alumni from the 1950′s onward were summoned and assembled, after Fox Sports North aimed its cameras at the Pit including the cute little helicopter for overheads, after around 4,000 fans arrived and circled the rink, after Elk hockey history dignitaries including Stanley Cup champion Joel Otto ceremoniously dropped the puck, and after Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed “Let’s Play Hockey,” there was, after all, a game to play Saturday afternoon.
Just as the school and city looked pretty good in setting up Hockey Day Minnesota, its boys hockey team was impressive, too, defeating the Stillwater Ponies 4-1 on statewide television, and for the first time, nationwide exposure on Fox.
The Elk girls (see separate story) had a tougher time, losing to Anoka 3-0.
“This was such an amazing experience for the whole town,” said Elk senior Chase Sprigman, who scored one of the goals. “I think everybody had a ton of fun. I’m so thankful to be a part of this, and especially to get a win out of the deal.”
Visiting press and Fox personnel were heard expressing high praise for the local hospitality and the Handke Pit setting with its sunken location that shelters fans and players from wind. Hockey Day veterans on hand shuddered at, by comparison, the memory of last year’s frigid experience on a lake at Grand Rapids.
Springman said he’s noticed “everybody getting psyched up” ever since last summer, when it started to look like Elk River would get Hockey Day, in part because of an anticipated strong boys team. “Not just players but the parents and the alumni and just everybody. This has been a real good building block for the team, and the whole hockey organization.”
Grant Bunker got the Elks going with a bullet from long range that connected late in the first period. Andrew Zerban, Springman, and Jake Jaremko (empty-netter) also scored, while goalie Mac Berglove withstood pressure throughout and had a shutout until the final minute.
Coach Gordie Roberts said he was a little concerned when he got up and had to shovel snow off his driveway, but conditions turned out to be excellent.
“The weather gods were good to us. All the snow was out of the way and we had sunshine. It worked out real well. We had the crowd and the excitement and all the kids from youth hockey and the alumni, so I’m real happy the way it turned out. The win is the end result of everything. And all the kids played.”
Weather was not much of a factor for the boys game as the temps climbed over 20 degrees for the boys game, after Rogers high school teams, Elk alumni and youth teams battled temps 10 and under during the week. For the Elk girls game, though, it got uncomfortably cold after the sun dipped below the horizon.
The Elks had a 2-0 lead when Stillwater’s scoring leader John Heddle was ejected in the second period for a hit on Jaremko. The Elks made it 3-0 on Springman’s goal late in the second period.
It stayed that way until 47 seconds remained when Sam Saggisor scored for Stillwater with the Ponies skating 6-on-4 in a power play after pulling the goalie. Jaremko punched one into the empty net seconds later.
“The kids played well, and my goaltender had a solid game,” said Roberts. “We had to play different style. We could not play the Olympic style, free-wheeling game, but you’ve got to win with different styles, and I think we did that.”
About the opponent, whose record is 9-8, Roberts said, “Stillwater had good battling kids out there.”
It was a stalemate most of the first period before Bunker, a senior defenseman, ripped one over the the right shoulder of Pony goalie Josh Bemson, with an assist from Matt Kierstad.
“I crossed the blue line and saw the corner of the net open so I went for that. I fired the puck and it went in,” said Bunker, who has three goals this year, including an almost identical one at Duluth East in a 3-2 win.
About the Hockey Day week, he said, “It’s been crazy. A real fun experience not just for the team but the whole town of Elk River.”
Stillwater, by cool coincidence, happened to be the Elk River’s very first opponent when the Elk hockey program started in 1958 — also at Handke. Stillwater won that one. The player who scored the very first Elk goal, Pat Foley, a 71-year-old Marshall businessman, was among the Elk alums attending the game, and he got to see his alma mater even the score.