ELK RIVER, Minn. — Joel Otto grinned his way through the ceremonial puck drop, stepped off the ice and shook a few hands, then allowed himself to be taken in by the Handke Pit scene.
The Stanley Cup winner is no stranger to the oval-shaped valley in the heart of Elk River. Before he played for the Calgary Flames, he learned to skate in this same earthen bowl. He grew up less than two blocks away.
But Saturday was different. It was bigger.
"This is wonderful," Otto said. "They’re a proud city, they love their hockey here, they love their sports and their community, and this just shows why and what they’re all about."
The eighth installment of Hockey Day Minnesota 2014 carried special meaning not just for this town of 23,000 located 33 miles northwest of Minneapolis, but for the entire territory they call the State of Hockey. All around the Land of 10,000 Lakes, communities gathered for similar tournaments, charity events and celebration of the greatest sport on ice for another year.
The Handke Pit, first flooded and used for skating in the 1920s, served as the centerpiece.
While Cloquet-Esko-Carlton bested Rochester Lourdes on the main sheet of ice before Elk River knocked off Stillwater, hockey constituents of all ages, shapes and sizes roamed the frozen, snow-covered grounds. Families watched their bundled-up mite players skate on an auxiliary outdoor rink, also the site of a special-needs teams’ exhibition put on by Minnesota Special Hockey. In between the high school boys’ contests, a disabled-veterans squad called the Minnesota Warriors took on a group of locals.
Fans located in the lower western bleachers could detect the scent of sweaty hockey equipment mixing with faint hints of soup and hot cocoa exchanging hands on a sunny, 20-degree day — almost perfect for keeping the ice in prime playing shape, save for a 20-minute delay before the Elk River-Stillwater clash while crews worked on hardening up the corners.
What better place to commemorate an indoor game most participants grow up playing among the elements?
The list of them includes Otto and Elk River-to-NHL alumni Nate Prosser, Paul Martin and Dan Hinote, all of whom learned to skate at the Pit. Another one-time pro, Elk River coach Gordie, grew up battling his brothers on a makeshift sheet of ice in their family’s Detroit backyard.
The former North Star defenseman, Stanley Cup winner and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member was happy to shovel his driveway Saturday morning. It meant the previous night’s snowfall was over, and the conditions’ effect on play would be minimal.
"I’m glad the weather gods were good to us," Roberts said. "It’s a little different style out there. You aren’t able to play more Olympic-sized, freewheeling game, but you’ve got to win different ways, and we did."
Elks of hockey past were on hand, too. The program’s first-ever coach, Walter Schumacher, now 89, dropped the puck for the day’s first token faceoff, and 1960 Elk River graduate Pat Foley led the team onto the ice and was recognized for scoring the first-ever goal in the high school’s organized pucks history.
He even had with him the stick Schumacher had promised whoever netted that inaugural marker.
"You’ll never get that (stick) away from me," said Foley, whose score came against, of all teams, Stillwater. "I think he paid two bucks for the stick and 25 cents for the fiberglass."
Even Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton was on hand to pick up a microphone and announce "let’s play hockey" to the few thousand fans either seated in bleachers, plopped down on benches wedged into the hillside or standing to watch the home team beat Stillwater 4-1 behind a 34-save effort from goalie Mac Berglove.
Cloquet captain James Newgren scored two goals in his team’s own 4-1 triumph. After growing up watching past Hockey Days on FOX Sports North, he called playing in it a dream come true.
"I remember watching the games when I was younger," Newgren said, "and it was just something I always dreamed of. Playing here at Handke Pit, some place with a lot of history behind it, makes it that much better."
But this party isn’t just about those who play or have played the game. It meant just as much to local hairdresser Sue Farber, who spent most of her childhood winter evenings hiking into the Pit and skating with friends and family members.
"Everybody’s so proud of this pit," Farber said. "I think people are becoming more aware of how historic it is. It’s something we always took for granted."
Mississippi native Craig Owen, who recently moved to the area for work, had never even seen a hockey game before Saturday. But a group of his friends that includes Eric McFee — who played on Elk River’s 2001 state championship team — told him to layer up and come on out.
"What better place to learn about the game?" McFee said with a grin.
As the sun set over the Handke Pit, a handful of spectators stuck around to watch the Elk River girls team take on nearby rival Anoka. Soon, the beloved space will return to normal — a public ground for pickup hockey and pleasure skating.
But every time the next NHL player, high school standout or casual exerciser steps on the ice here, they’ll behold a place with another memorable chapter now added to its rich history.