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When Hockey Day Minnesota set up its camp in Duluth outside at Bayfront Park, and Duluth East lost a nail-biter to Lakeville North, it was such a perfect setting that a lot of hockey observers wondered why it couldn’t happen every year, same place, same time.
Last weekend, Hockey Day Minnesota was held in Bemidji, at a neat little rink set up outside adjacent to Lake Bemidji and the new Sanford Center indoor facility, with bleachers set up all the way around. It was vintage Bemidji — cold, very cold, and nobody seemed to mind. And the hockey was exceptional. Makes you wonder why it couldn’t be held here, every year.
The Minnesota Wild, and Fox Sports North, have conspired to make Hockey Day Minnesota a traditional highlight in what might be a long, nasty time of year. The Wild doesn’t have much to do with it these days, but Fox Sports North did an outstanding job at what it has made a top spectacle of its sports broadcasting. Instead of filling between games and periods with boring stuff, the Fox gang came up with numerous creative features involving players in the games, and youth hockey players who are only dreaming of taking part someday.
On the home front, Brad Folkestad, Bemidji State’s director of sports information, did an outstanding job. Because of the logistics of the event, the fact that the Wild was occupied back home, and that Bemidji State’s men and women were playing during the weekend, Folkestad pretty much had to take over and run the whole thing, from a media standpoint. He had the chance to warm up a bit, because he would race over from the outdoor rink to Sanford Center to print statistics, then hustle back. “Only thing is, I don’t know what to do with the period and game stats once I print them up,” Folkestad said, laughing.
This one had everything. Almost makes you forget that Bemidji is a late-blooming R.H. Bob Peters strolling out in his sheepskin coat, face protected enough that it might have been an imposter. He’s the guy who left one of the great coaching positions in the country — at the University of North Dakota — to move to Bemidji where they didn’t even have an indoor arena of any kind, for a Division II program that would play you anytime, as long as you didn’t mind playing outside. Peters coached the Beavers for a year outside while John Glad Fieldhouse was being built with an indoor rink.
Peters built a small-college powerhouse, with 13 NCAA championships at different levels as he led them up to Division I status. The Beavers won 702 games in 34 years, and while he has turned over the reins of Bemidji State’s program to Tom Serratore — one of his many players who went into coaching over the years — and Peters was out there to drop the ceremonial first puck as the Beavers took on Michigan Tech in a WCHA game on the outdoor rink.
It was a stirring game, with Bemidji State rallying to win in overtime, 4-3. As good as the hockey was, perhaps the most amazing thing is that the stands built on all four sides of the rink were pretty much packed with fans. Sure, they could dash out between periods and make their way to any of several food trucks parked around a courtyard that featured big-screen television screens and blazing bonfires. Or they could go into the huge warming tent to get genuinely warm, or at least warm enough to feel their toes.
It was about 15 below zero, and you’ve got to be some kind of fanatical fan to bundle up and sit or stand in that bone-chilling cold. But it would get worse overnight. At 7 a.m. Saturday, the temperature was an actual minus-29, and there was a game scheduled for 9:30 a.m.
Not just any game, either. This was No. 1 Minnetonka playing No. 2 Andover; two undefeated schools that are about 25 miles apart with a half-dozen arenas between them, made the long trek to play on the outdoor ice at Bemidji, where Fox Sports North would carry their game live, on national television, to kick off the day of hockey. The sun was shining brightly out of a clear blue sky, which again proved one of nature’s laws — sometimes the sun can shine brightly and offer absolutely no discernible heat! It had warmed up to minus-26 at game-time.
Andover scored a short-handed goal near the end of the first period, when Charlie Schoen broke up the right 2-on-1 and fed a perfect pass across the slot to Nick Dainty, who scored before diving Minnetonka goaltender Charlie Glockner could get across the crease. A couple questionable calls against Andover left the Huskies two skaters short, with one penalty a major, and Minnetonka broke the tie on that 5-on-3, when Grant Docter scored. It stayed 2-1 until the third period when two quick goals pushed Minnetonka’s lead to 4-1, and the Skippers went on to win 5-2. Minnetonka, outshot 28-18, went home 17-0-1, and Andover 16-1-1.
At 1 p.m., Bemidji State’s women’s team played Minnesota State-Mankato in a women’s WCHA game outside, and the Mavericks won a 2-1 battle between the old rivals. That game was followed by the Bemidji High School Lumberjacks taking on Greenway of Coleraine.
Wyatt Halverson scored a goal in each period for a pure hat trick and a 3-0 victory for Bemidji. It’s been a tough year for Greenway, because while loaded with skill, the Raiders haven’t found winning comes easy, and this game proved more of the same, as Bemidji goaltender Broc Waldhausen weathered almost constant Greenway attacks and came away with a 3-0 shutout.
That concluded the long day outside, but inside the beautifully designed Sanford Center, just across the parking lot from the outdoor rink, Bemidji State followed up its overtime outdoor victory by blanking Tech 3-0 for a huge sweep, boosting the Beavers to 10-7-1 in league play, same as Tech. The Beavers are 12-11-3 overall, and head for Lake Superior State (10-6-2 WCHA, 15-7-2 overall) this weekend in another huge series.
Also Saturday night, a couple hundred miles to the south, the Wild concluded Hockey Day Minnesota with a tenacious 2-1 victory over Columbus at Xcell Energy Center on Zach Parise’s 20th goal in the third period.
UMD, on the road, swept Miami of Ohio with its second shutout in as many nights, and UMD’s women stunned Ohio State with its second victory for another sweep at AMSOIL Arena. On the men’s side, UMD vaulted into second place behind St. Cloud State, which beat Western Michigan for a sweep, making Saturday a nearly perfect Hockey Day, and night, Minnesota.
My wife, Joan, and I did the shuttle back and forth to the warming tent, grabbing a bowl of chili from a food truck on the way. Live music enlivened the tent, where fans bundled in snowmobile suits or heavy gear with parkas were taking breaks. “Usually, Hockey Day Minnesota is my favorite day of the year,” said Joan. “But this time…it was just too cold, and I couldn’t enjoy it.”
Players out there on the ice were flying, and whenever you could corner one, he would insist that it wasn’t that cold and that it was a thrill they’d never forget.
That’s all that really matters, as long as nobody got frostbite or hypothermia.