by Jared Hines
Contributing Sports Writer
Rogers Activity Center looked a little different when the Peewee B1 teams from Rogers and Andover walked through the doors for their game on Jan. 25.
The crowd was abnormally large, and fans of both teams flooded in the main lobby of the arena entrance, waiting to see the look on the kids’ faces when they walked through the door. Camera crews were set up to ambush the kids as they walked in, making them feel like celebrities.
Still, the 11- to 12-year-old youth hockey players had no idea what they were in for.
“I think it is really cool to see the Minnesota Wild’s commitment to youth hockey and high school hockey,” said Anthony LaPanta, the Wild’s television play-by-play announcer. “I’m amazed by the crowd they have here tonight and the turnout locally. I think it’s just great.”
The Minnesota Wild started something they call “Wild Spotlight” this season, a chance to give back to local communities and allow younger hockey players the chance to see what it would feel like to be a professional player for a night. The team brings in everyone from Adam Abrams, the Wild’s in-arena announcer, to James Bohn, the Wild National Anthem singer, to make it feel like a real game. The locker rooms are decked out in Wild apparel for both teams, as well as a special guest that acts as the coach for the game.
“It’s a really need experience for these young kids,” former NHL player Wes Walz said. “You can just see the smile on their faces when they are out there. To be able to experience something like this is a memory that they will never forget.”
The Rogers and Andover communities packed the Rogers Ice Arena, a place usually relatively quiet, even when the Rogers High School boys and girls high school teams play their home games there. Many players from both high school teams were in attendance, seeing recognizable faces from TV like Walz, LaPanta, and Mike Greenlay, one of the Wild Television analysts. The crowd from both schools did a great job keeping the whole showcase a secret from the Peewee hockey players as well, making it even cooler when the players entered the locker room to see new Wild bags next to their own hockey equipment.
“To come out here, middle of the week, for a Peewee game and be able to fill an arena is great,” said Kevin Falness, Wild radio network host. “You just watch their faces as they talk to Wes Walz or watch them with an Anthony LaPanta or Mike Greenlay, who they see on TV. You can just tell it means a lot to them.”
This is just this second Wild Spotlight that the NHL team has done and the first one for boys youth hockey players. The team traveled to Stillwater a couple weeks prior to Jan. 25, putting on a spotlight for youth girls hockey players. The production takes a lot of planning, making sure that all the schedules line up perfectly and aren’t affected by any of the many Wild games and events that go along with being a part of the team. The Wild crew was in Dallas the night before, with the team winning in a shootout to the Dallas Stars.
“These kids live for those games,” LaPanta said, talking about the amount of support that youth players give to the Wild. “Everywhere I go in the rink tonight, parents and players all want to talk about the game last night. If the Wild want to create a night like this, we are willing to do it and spend an off night doing something cool like this.”
The Rogers Peewee B1 team defeated Andover 5-1 on Wednesday night, with both teams posing together after for a photo with all Wild personnel who were able to make the night special and make these preteens feel like they were NHL superstars. No hockey game is complete without post-game interviews though, and as Husky and Royal skaters came off the ice, a couple of them were directed to the swarm of media to answer questions about their experience.
“Even though I played in the National Hockey League, we still remember when we were young,” Walz said after the game. “A lot of retired players and a lot of players who are still playing are cognizant of how important it is to give back to the communities because we remember these days.”
Falness and LaPanta handled the interviews while Walz talked to other fans who had made their way to the bleachers to get a close up of a former NHL player and the rest of the crew that came along for the game. Fans chatted with Walz and Bohn, asked them an abundance of questions as they smiled and politely answered all of them with style and grace.
“I can’t imagine what this would be like, as a young boy, doing this in front of an Al Shaver for example,” Falness said about how lucky these kids should feel. “The cool thing is that these guys are physically creating memories for these kids. I mean this is just a really neat and cool experience and something that will impact these kids in a really positive way.”
As the crowd started to disperse, Walz started making his way back to the Rogers locker room, giving them a post-game talk after their big win. He admired their innocence, thinking back and saying that many of them were only four or five when he retired from playing the game he loved.
“I retired like ten years ago so I’m not sure they all remember me,” Walz said with a grin. “I’m sure they are going to go home and Google me and try to find out who I was.”