Heaven on earth for hockey fans

• More than 4,000 attend Hockey Day Minnesota in Elk River’s historic Handke Pit

by Jim Boyle


From the moment Elk River boys skaters and their coaches boarded a bus on the morning of Jan. 18 at the Elk River Ice Arena to make the short drive to the Handke Pit, it was clear this day would be magical.

With a fresh blanket of snow sparkling on the sun-drenched ground, players peered out the bus windows in awe as street after street in downtown Elk River were lined with cars, trucks and SUVs. The people who had parked them had one destination in mind: Hockey Day Minnesota.

Photo by Lifetouch Emma Crane sang the national anthem before the Elk River boys hockey game against Stillwater. Kelsey Lane of Zimmerman sang it for the game between Rochester Lourdes and Cloquet, and Lindsay Budahn sang it before the Elk River girls game against Anoka.
Photo by Lifetouch
Emma Crane sang the national anthem before the Elk River boys hockey game against Stillwater. Kelsey Lane of Zimmerman sang it for the game between Rochester Lourdes and Cloquet, and Lindsay Budahn sang it before the Elk River girls game against Anoka.

The players and many in the community had this date on their calendar since March 15 when it was announced at a Minnesota Wild game. The excitement and hype for the annual event put on by Fox Sports North, the Minnesota Wild and Wells Fargo reached a crescendo on Friday, Jan. 17, at a banquet to welcome the six participating high school teams.

“This is our eighth annual event, and dare I say this is the best setting we’ve had for Hockey Day Minnesota,” Kevin Gorg, Fox Sports North’s announcer said to a packed banquet hall at Rockwoods in Otsego.

Outstate competitors Cloquet and Rochester Lourdes got Hockey Day Minnesota going with the first game. The Lumberjacks of the north beat the Eagles of the south 4-1.

Joe Kotzian carried the Hockey Day Minnesota flag. Kelsey Lane sang the national anthem. Walt Schumacher, who became Elk River’s first varsity hockeycoach in 1958, and Paul Ostby, a 1977 Elk River graduate who went on to play for the University of Minnesota Gophers as a walk-on, dropped the first pucks.

Now it was the Elk River boys’ turn. Upon arrival to the stadium, the Elk skaters were welcomed by most of the 4,000-plus fans who would come for a chance to see Elk River hockey return to its roots at the historic, glacially formed Handke Stadium. Bleachers surrounding the National Hockey League-sized rink filled for the game against the Stillwater Ponies. So did the hill along Main Street, where people either found a seat on wood-plank-covered telephone poles laid on the ground as benches, stood along the street or nestled into the snowbank to watch one or all three of the varsity high school games.

Children made sledding paths where there weren’t paths before.

The Elk skaters were ushered in by Elk River alumni wearing the high school’s jerseys of old. They laced up their skates in trailers and headed out to begin their warm-ups.

They returned to the trailers for one last pep talk and waited for the ice at the bottom of Handke to be resurfaced by a Zamboni from the Elk River Ice Arena.

When it was finally time for the boys to take the ice for the game, Will Ambrose and Logan Bunker made in initial lap around the rink, bearing flags for Hockey Day Minnesota and Elk River Hockey.

Emma Crane sang the national anthem for this next game of the day.

Joel Otto, one of four Elk River graduates to play in the National Hockey League, and former Elks coach Dave Bleyhl prepared to drop the first pucks. The ceremony also included a special appearance by Gov. Mark Dayton who got things ready with his three simple words: “Let’s play hockey!”

Among the fans in the stands were Craig Leipold, the owner of the Minnesota Wild. This was more than just a game to the players and coaches on the ice and the 4,000-plus people who attended.

“I caught myself during TV timeouts looking back at the hill to see the sea of people and how amazing of a sight that was,” said Ben Gustafson, an assistant Elk River High School hockey coach who played on the Elks 2001 state championship hockey team. “I did it pretty much every TV timeout.”

After the first intermission, members of the 2001 state championship team were introduced.

The Elk River boys went on to beat the Stillwater Ponies 4-1. It was nearly a shutout, but the Ponies scored with 47 seconds left the game.

As the Elk River girls hockey team prepared to do battle with Anoka, the boys took their celebration to the top of the Handke sliding hill.

Gorg, who won a state championship with Burnsville, encouraged the players at banquet to live in the moment.

“It’s not the state tournament, but I will tell you from talking to players that have played in past events, like Nick Bjugstad, who now plays in the NHL, it was one of the best days of playing high school hockey.

“We live in a world right now with technology where everything is about the next step,” he said. “We’re going to go here… go there. We’re going to text it. We’re going to tweet it. Sometimes you have to just punch into what you’re doing right now. Make it count and enjoy it.”

Gustafson said it was easy for him to drill down and savor every little moment.

“After all the hours I’ve skated in the pit and all the running up the hills with my former teammates (to slide back down) and working out there, to play a game down there with referees and coaches, Plexiglas and boards, was just unbelievable,” he said. “Words can’t describe how excited I was as a coach for our players. The win makes it even sweeter.”

Players had their pictures taken in front of an Elk River logo created by high school art students. That’s when the kid in Gustafson bubbled up.

“The kid in me spoke,” he said. “I guess there’s only one thing to do, and it’s to slide down the hill.

“I started running and jumping down the hill and looking back and I saw 20 guys followed me. That’s a memory I will never forget.”

Gorg, who has broadcast seven of the eight Hockey Day Minnesota events, said later in the day his suspicions about Handke Stadium being the best venue yet proved to be correct.

It’s already on the National Register of Historic Places. It had been restored by the Elk River Rotary through a series of fund-raising events and improvement projects.

The Elk River girls lost to Anoka 3-0, but there was plenty of excitement before and throughout that game.

Adria Kotzian carried the flag before game, and Elizabeth Budahn sang the national anthem. Dawn Peterson, a 1975 Elk River graduate who became a triple gold medalist U.S. figure skater, and Anya Miller Yaeger, who led Elk girls’ hockey to the 2004 state championship and a year later helped the Gophers capture the NCAA championship, dropped the first pucks.

At one point in Fox’s coverage of the event, the pit was referred to heaven on earth. Gustafson, who heard that while watching a recording of the event, said all he could do is agree and smile.

There were four main partners locally that organized the event: the Elk River Area School District, the city of Elk River, the Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce and the Elk River Youth Hockey Association. They made it all happen with work and countless volunteer hours.

Gustafson said it was evident how much work went in to make the event and venue a success. That became part of the Elks’ rally cry in the locker room.

“I told the players to play the game for city of Elk River and all the people who have put in countless hours to make this event possible,” he said.  “And I also said to play it for the people that put on the Elk River jersey before you and the many people who are going to put it on after you.”