ST. PAUL, Minn. — When Saturday hits, thousands of people in Minnesota will be thinking about hockey, although this won’t be any old Saturday in the “State of Hockey.”
Many people have been thinking about and planning for Saturday for a long time – a couple years in fact.
Saturday is Hockey Day in Minnesota 2013. The day will feature three high school games played outdoors on Lake Pokegama, a University of Minnesota game at Mariucci Arena and a Minnesota Wild NHL game at the Xcel Energy Center. Including coverage of all five games, FOX Sports North will air more than 21 consecutive hours of hockey-related programming. Grand Rapids has been working toward Saturday for more than two years since the city was named the 2013 host of the seventh-annual event.
“It’s a labor of love,” said FOX Sports North’s John Stroh, who’s been a part of each of the first six Hockey Days in Minnesota as a producer for the outdoor high school games.
To bring viewers and hockey fans hours of games and stories starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday, planning began when Grand Rapids, about three hours north of the Twin Cities, was named the host on April 15, 2011. The city has prepped since then to put on three high school games — two boys games involving four teams that will air live and a third between the Grand Rapids and Hibbing girls teams, which will be aired on tape delay.
It hasn’t been easy for Grand Rapids, which has worked hard to create a unique environment on Lake Pokegama. Though other areas might have had premade rinks or infrastructure to support the building of rinks, Grand Rapids wanted to take hockey back to its roots — on the pond.
“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,” said Sholom Blake, the co-chair of the Grand Rapids Hockey Day committee. “We’re excited to really show the rest of the state what we pulled off. … Logistically, it’s been challenging. It’s not impossible and we pulled it off, and it’s going to be great. But it’s definitely more work”
Starting in January, blessed with the freezing temperatures necessary, Grand Rapids went to work building the rink. Workers shoveled snow off the ice and started flooding the area to ensure a smooth, thick surface. About two weeks ago, they began putting up the boards with anchors drilled into the ice. Fencing followed, lines were painted on the ice — which is about 2 feet thick now — and soon a rink was complete.
“It’s their baby,” Stroh said. “They love it. They’re sending pictures every day of the arena. … Having the whole city behind it is going to be great, seeing everyone and being able to enjoy it on Saturday.”
With other homemade rinks nearby and other activities available in the area, Blake believes it will be the idyllic winter setting to showcase the city’s hearty nature. Beyond the committee and workers who have been involved in the preparation, about 200 volunteers will help out Saturday.
“It’s a pretty stressful deal,” Blake said. “A labor of love is a good way to explain it. We’re pretty into it and excited to make it happen.”
FOX Sports North is excited as well. The programming will include an update on Jack Jablonski, the paralyzed Benilde-St. Margaret’s hockey player who had last year’s Hockey Day in Minnesota dedicated to him with a telethon that raised more than $134,000 in donations for his medical fund. Features will also include an update on Wild goaltender Josh Harding, who is dealing with multiple sclerosis, a story on Caitlin Tate, the starting goalie for Park High School in Cottage Grove who was born without a hand, and a look at the history of hockey in Grand Rapids.
Broadcasting five games from three locations requires more than 100 FOX Sports North employees and crew. The network will have production trucks stationed at Pokegama Lake in Grand Rapids, Xcel Energy Center and Mariucci Arena, a total of 20 cameras, seven on-air reporters and three play-by-play/game analyst duos. But the biggest challenge will come while broadcasting the outdoor games.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is always prepare for change,” FOX Sports North coordinating producer Trevor Fleck said. “Every year, there is an element that comes in that you’re not planned for.”
The ability to adapt has become paramount. Some of the changes have included freezing weather that affected equipment and warm weather that affected the quality of the ice. Last year, the high school games were forced indoors because of warm weather.
“Last year, we changed two weeks before we went on the air,” Fleck said. “We made it a whole benefit for Jack Jablonski. This year, the announcement that the Wild were going to be back and starting on Hockey Day happened a week before. Every year, there is a major change that happens within the final two weeks and everything you have planned and prepared for, you have to readjust.”
The opportunity and effectiveness of broadcasting three outdoor high school games doesn’t happen without the support of the host city and some willing employees.
“The beauty with Grand Rapids is the whole community has gotten behind it and has really become a team effort,” FOX Sports North executive producer Tony Tortorici said. “Doing something on a lake outdoors is just fraught with peril — just the logistics of what could happen are pretty amazing. It’s just different because they’re not used to it. When you do a Wild game, the infrastructure is there and everybody in the arena kind of knows what to expect when television is there. With something like this, nothing is really taken for granted and everything has to be discussed or laid out or kind of thought through.”
But the uniqueness of Hockey Day in Minnesota showcases the special people involved in the sport and is what has allowed the event to become what Tortorici called “our Super Bowl.”
“Our goal of the day is to show how hockey, the importance of hockey, how it affects all levels and all areas of the Minnesota communities,” Fleck said. “It’s a fabric that is woven through all aspects of Minnesota communities, and our goal is to highlight and showcase the impact it has throughout the state in a variety of ways and a variety of levels. And that’s high school, college, pro, which we showcase with games, with great games and being outside and on an outside rink. But it’s also inspirational and heartfelt and warming stories of how hockey brings communities together.”