Grand Rapids more than ready for Hockey Day

ST. PAUL, Minn. — When Grand Rapids decided to get involved with Hockey Day in Minnesota, city hockey association president Sholom Blake, association vice president Jim Bonner and mayor Dale Adams joined in an effort to promote the vast history of the sport in their community.

The northern Minnesota town of just over 10,000 people began as a tiny logging outpost that eventually learned those big logs worked really well whittled into hockey sticks for playing on local ponds. Bill Baker, a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice U.S. Olympic hockey team and the first state championship team in Grand Rapids High school history, is from Grand Rapids. More recently, the town has produced Dallas Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski and Goligoski’s college coach, University of Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia.

So, Blake, Bonner and Adams set out more than two years ago to Moorhead, Minn., to make their pitch to host. On April 15, 2011, they were told Grand Rapids had landed the seventh-annual Hockey Day in Minnesota. Saturday, after years of planning, the town will be the site for three outdoor high school games on Lake Pokegama, and all eyes in the State of Hockey will shift north.

“It’s a celebration of the history and tradition of hockey in the state of Minnesota, and we really feel as though the history and tradition of hockey in Minnesota has a pretty strong place right here in Grand Rapids,” said Blake, a co-chair with Bonner for Saturday’s events. “Hockey Day, this is like a way of life for a lot of us.”

FOX Sports North, in partnership with the Minnesota Wild and Wells Fargo, will broadcast 21 consecutive hours of hockey coverage starting at 9 a.m. The day begins with two boys hockey games. Hibbing hosts Eagan on the newly built rink of Lake Pokegama at 10 a.m., with Grand Rapids playing defending state Class AA champion Benilde-St. Margaret’s at 1:30 p.m. The Gophers then host North Dakota in Minneapolis at 5 p.m., one of the final conference games between the long-time rivals.

The Minnesota Wild open their season against the Colorado Avalanche at home in an 8 p.m. game, and the big day will finish with a tape-delayed broadcast of the Hibbing and Grand Rapids girls hockey teams on the ice at Lake Pokegama.

Hockey Day Minnesota began in January 2007 on the shores of Baudette Bay near Lake of the Woods and returned to the same venue in 2008. The event moved to St. Paul in 2009. Hermantown (2010), Moorhead (2011) and Minnetonka (2012) have also hosted Hockey Day in Minnesota.

Though it’s new to hosting the event, Grand Rapids is used to the unique opportunity to play on Hockey Day in Minnesota. Grand Rapids’ boys hockey team beat White Bear Lake, 4-3, during last year’s event.

“It’s a great honor, obviously, having it in our hometown and home community,” Grand Rapids boys hockey coach Bruce LaRoque said. “When you consider a so-called smaller community, it’s just that. The school is encompassed into the community, and a lot of people are going to enjoy in this experience. So to be one of the select few over the years that have been chosen, we’re very excited.”

For the first time since Baudette Bay in the first two years, the event is back on a lake. Lake Pokegama is 1,515 acres and has been prepped for weeks for the event. Of course, the lake is also the site of many homemade rinks every winter.

“It’s a good old-fashioned pond hockey game, and it’s the way it was first dreamed up and the way it’s meant to be,” Blake said. “We’re excited to really show the rest of the state what we pulled off.”

Though the town has rallied around the opportunity and helped put the day’s festivities together, LaRoque knows his work comes Saturday. Grand Rapids, ranked No. 13 in Class AA, features one of the top players in Minnesota in senior defenseman Jake Bischoff, a possible contender for Mr. Hockey who is committed to the University of Minnesota. Grand Rapids will face the defending state champion and No. 3 ranked Benilde-St. Margaret’s, which is led by another Mr. Hockey candidate in Grant Besse, a University of Wisconsin commitment.

The day’s first game will feature a third strong Mr. Hockey candidate in Hibbing’s Adam Johnson, who is committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Hibbing is ranked No. 14 in Class A and will face Eagan, No. 5 in Class AA and led by forwards Zach Glienke and Connor Willox. In the girls game, Hibbing is ranked No. 11 in Class A.

“It should be very good games,” LaRoque said. “But that’s what you look for. You schedule tough teams. Obviously being outside and being Hockey Day, it’s just a great honor and you hope to have a good showing. And you know you’re going to face good competition, so you better show up.”

The Gophers game will be the final regular-season conference meeting between Minnesota and North Dakota, with the Gophers slated to play in the new Big Ten conference next year. Lucia was reminded of his days in Grand Rapids by the Hockey Day tie-in.

“That was always the best time of the year,” Lucia said. “Some of the ponds would freeze over before it snowed so you could just go cruise around. It was like glass. It was great.”

The Wild’s return from the NHL’s lockout with their first game of the shortened season should be a fitting end to a day of live programming.

“I’ve characterized it as a “perfect storm” – in a good way,” said Mike Dimond, senior vice president and general manager of FOX Sports North. “We have the quintessential outdoor venue in Grand Rapids with very competitive high school games, the Gophers/UND meeting for the last time in the regular season, and the Wild opener with the first chance to see Parise and Suter in a Wild uniform. It’s going to be quite special.”

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