The Frozen Ones

Posted at: 02/26/2014 11:02 PM
By: Laura Kennedy

They've earned their stripes while enduring the elements. Hundreds of plays made and goals scored, both real and imagined, as kids pretend to be their hockey heroes.

As time passed, leather helmets became plastic, and wood sticks carbon fiber. But the simplicity of the game itself has stood the test of time. A lifelong passion forged with a stick and a pair of blades.

For some kids, their entire hockey career was on the pond. For others, this is simply where it began.

Derek Plante went from Cloquet Lumberjack to UMD, and eventually the NHL. Now a coach for the Bulldogs, Plante never forgot his roots.

"It's part of our history," Plante said. "We're proud to be a hockey state and that starts outside."

A few years ago, Plante built a backyard rink to give his three boys, Zam, Max, and Victor, some ice of their own.

"Sometimes there's so much structure in today's game that it's nice to just get out there and let them play," Plante said.

The rink requires early mornings and late nights filled with flooding, leveling, shoveling and sweeping. But, it's a labor of love.

"They beg me to come out here every time and I try to come out here as much as I can," Plante said. "It's a challenge for me to try to get the puck away from them. They're just buzzing around and it's fun. They're hockey guys."

Many never grow out of it. Some Duluth teams play their whole season outside. This Lower Chester rink is one of the oldest in the area. It's weathered the blades of hockey players for decades.

"It's fun. You get to play with all your friends and meet new people."

Unfazed by frigid temperatures, young skaters like the game better this way.

"When you're outside and you shoot the puck over the boards it normally goes over the boards. But when you're inside it deflects off the glass and you can get it," said Wyatt Zwak, Duluth Heights squirt player.

"It's more competitive than the other leagues and you have to get better to play it, and it's really fun," said Simon Davidson, another Duluth Heights squirt.

Zambonis now handle the workload at most arenas, but a lot of outdoor rinks still manage the old fashioned way.

"We have people at our rink every night of the week," said Kevin Lott of Duluth.

Lott is one of many hockey parents who volunteer. That means arriving well before the game and staying late, clearing snow or spraying water.

"This year we started on Thanksgiving flooding the rinks," Lott said. "Once we get the rinks all flooded, we have to maintain them. Shovel them, sweep them, this year has been especially hard because of all the snow."

They'll gladly take up those shovels and hoses if kids discover a love for the game.

"It gets a lot more kids involved I think," Lott said. "It makes it more affordable for the younger kids to check it out, try it, and see if they want to stick with it."

Teams on both sides of the border still respect and celebrate the chilly origins of the game.

Thirty teams showed up for the Great Lakes Pond Hockey Classic in and on Superior.

"Whether some of us make it on to the college career and even past that, at some point in time it ends. But the love for it doesn't go away," said Jason Rauner, tournament director. "So we find where to play. And pond hockey is the way it's meant to be played."

This was Scott Wishart's second tournament. No referees and boards made of snow, but he says the hunger for victory never goes away.

"Everyone wants to win, everyone wants to score goals so everyone is playing their hardest whether you're sixty years old or eighteen," Wishart said.

The pressure is even higher when the whole state is watching. Hockey Day Minnesota has trekked around the state for eight years. This winter, Elk River.

"It's kind of exciting because nothing every really happens in Elk River," said Karson Patten of Elk River.

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton was picked to play for the first time. Players were thrilled to be part of it.

"It's great. A lot of people don't know where Cloquet is so just playing in this is fun," said Christian Pritchett, junior wing.

For head coach Dave Esse, it was a reminder of past times.

"I can speak for the Lumberjacks and our staff, we just love it," Esse said. "We practiced outside on Wednesday and we felt like little kids again."

Mark Anderson also made the trek from Cloquet. He had to be part of the tradition.

"I've been a hockey fan my whole life. Kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity here," Anderson said. "So I grabbed my daughter and we thought we'd come down and enjoy hockey like it's supposed to be, like it used to be when I was young."

Old fashioned hockey may seem peculiar to some, but for those who call the upper midwest home, it's a way to pass the cold winter months.

"This is like back in the day," Anderson said. "Everybody is used to being warm and indoors but this is the true hockey fans out here now."

And maybe it's not so crazy after all. The idea has been embraced by colleges and the NHL. But is it a lasting tradition? Some worry time commitment and expense could eventually drive even the heartiest teams to indoor arenas.

"Hopefully it won't go away totally, but I think it's kind of getting to be a thing of the past," Anderson said.

Others say outdoor hockey is part of our culture, and there will always be folks willing to make sure the spirit of the past lives on.

"As long as these guys wanna play, we'll keep going. I don't ever see this going away," Rauner said.

"There's too many people in Minnesota that are strong and really have a pride in it that I don't think it'll ever go away," Plante said. "We feel it's important for our kids to see adults working and for them to have a place to just have fun and be free."

And the memories made here are passed along from one generation to another.

"I don't ever think you're going to get that little kid off the rink," Rauner said.