HDM: With spotlight on military, Hockey Day 2015 focuses on bigger picture

St. Paul Downtown Airport's Holman Field was the site of Hockey Day Minnesota 2015 on Saturday.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — For one day, the St. Paul Downtown Airport’s Holman Field added the title of hockey haven to the hustle and bustle of a fully operational airfield.

More than 6,000 fans tucked themselves into the wooden bleachers surrounding the site’s temporary, refrigerated rink that stayed intact despite temperatures poking at the 40s. Six high school hockey teams from all over Minnesota donned eye black and slipped around for a period before adjusting to the conditions, which included heavy winds at times and glaring sunlight at others. Herb Brooks’ 1980 gold medal made an appearance, as did two-time Olympian Krissy Pohl (formerly Wendell). Cessnas and helicopters came in and out of the backdrop periodically. Behind it all stood the state capitol building, Cathedral of St. Paul and downtown St. Paul, a city in which they’ve been playing prep pucks for more than a century.

Celebrating the State of Hockey’s official sport in a setting reminiscent of its purest form is spectacle enough. But on Saturday, for the first time, the game that takes center stage in mid-January every year shared the limelight.

Minnesota National Guard soldiers dotted the scene in green fatigues. St. Paul Johnson, Hill-Murray, St. Thomas Academy and the Cretin-Derham Hall girls teams all wore camo-patterned sweaters to match. Between plays, members of the 34th Combat Aviation Brigade and 2-147th Assault Helicopter Battalion deployed to Camp Beuhring in Kuwait appeared on the video board, delivering messages of support for the team each favored in that particular game. On FOX Sports North, others were interviewed before a statewide and national television audience as they took in the day from half a world away. Children at Holman climbed in and out of Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters and a C-130 cargo jet.

Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner shed tears remembering his late parents, both of whom served in the Navy. St. Thomas Academy co-head coach Tom Vannelli wore the olive-green jacket of a former guardsman Vannelli says was stationed here for more than 30 years.

Hockey Day Minnesota 2015, the Land of 10,000 Lakes’ pseudo-holiday’s ninth rendition, wasn’t about hockey. It was about the bigger picture.

"When you’re deployed, you become very focused on the task at hand and your military mission," Minnesota National Guard Lt. Col. Kevin Olson said. A distraction, he added, is necessary. "Any opportunity that you can get to be connected to what is familiar and what is enjoyable and what is pleasurable to you, especially when you’re passionate about a sport."

Hockey Day Minnesota 2015 Coverage

Said Sgt. Rob Wagner, who’s been an active-duty member of the military for 28 years and deployed twice: "It means a lot (to his comrades overseas). It’s a taste of home."

And the participants therein gave the day’s guests of honor — both at Holman and abroad — plenty to get excited about.

One goal decided all three games of the day’s high school portion at Holman. Johnson led 5-1 before Luverne scored four straight goals, only to lose on freshman Carl Fish’s redirected, point wrist shot with 1 minute, 2 seconds remaining. Jake Wittl’s wraparound goal from the slot won it for Hill-Murray in overtime in a matchup of Class 2A’s No. 3 and No. 4 teams.

"It’s a fun day," St. Thomas Academy’s other head man, Greg Vannelli, said.

And with the sun set and the lights on, Cretin-Derham Hall’s girls survived Duluth in a 5-4 outcome.

The Raiders’ top assistant knows a thing or two about standing for the red, white and blue. Pohl won bronze and silver, respectively, while playing for Team USA at the 2002 and 2006 Olympic Games.

"Any time there’s country representation," the Brooklyn Park native and former Gopher said. "I think it’s great that they recognize that. I think it’s great for our players and our students."

Hockey Day Highlights

Said Cretin-Derham Hall senior Paige Voight, who just returned from helping the Americans win gold at the IIHF under-18 world championships: "It’s an awesome experience right now, because I know what it’s like to be out playing for USA and how supportive everyone is, and now I get to give the support back to the military."

As the day wound down, the University of Minnesota shellacked Big Ten border rival Wisconsin in a bout of old-time hockey. Across the way from Holman, the Wild hosted Arizona to cap off another Hockey Day.

The 34th went back to work as a primary command-and-control center for American troops in the Middle East as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve. The soldiers back stateside returned to their normal, domestic routines. The players threw their camouflage jerseys in the wash and prepared for the home stretch of the high school hockey season. After eight peewee games Sunday, the Holman Field tarmac will return to a higher-security, off-limits taxiway for aircraft serving the Guard, 3M and several private functions.

Saturday’s battles are over. But the fight continues.

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