ST. PAUL, Minn. — Basketball on an aircraft carrier. Soccer in the middle of the Amazon.
And now, high school hockey amid the hubbub of a fully operational airfield.
Just a half-mile from the Minnesota Wild’s Xcel Energy Center, a sextet of high school teams will take center stage on an outdoor, refrigerated rink at St. Paul’s Holman Field, highlighting the ninth annual Hockey Day Minnesota spectacular slated for Saturday, Jan. 17. Fighter jets and assault helicopters will form the spectacle’s preliminary backdrop, with the skyline of downtown St. Paul behind them.
It won’t have the national television coverage of college hoops’ Carrier Classic or the prestige of the 2014 FIFA World Cup’s Arena Amazonia. But this year’s pucks party is thought to be the first to take place at an active aviation facility.
"It’s gonna be cool playing on an airport," St. Paul Johnson senior captain Justin Howell, whose school is serving as the games’ on-site host, said Friday after an on-site press conference announcing the event. "That’s different. I haven’t seen that before."
Commemorating the second century of prep hockey competition in the state capital, Hockey Day Minnesota 2015 proceeds will benefit Saint Paul Youth Hockey and Serving Our Troops — a fitting cause, given the Minnesota National Guard 34th Combat Aviation Brigade and 2-147th Assault Helicopter Battalion are stationed at Holman.
More than 200 Brigade soldiers from 43 different Minnesota communities recently deployed to Kuwait, Colonel Jon A. Jensen told the gathered media and event officials Friday morning.
"What is a very unique Minnesota tradition . . . is nested in what I think is really also unique in Minnesota, and that is the continued support of our communities and our organizations to the service members and their families of all of our services stationed here in Minnesota," Jensen said, adding that the Minnesota Air National Guard and Army National Guard hockey teams plan to square off the Friday before Hockey Day, perhaps even including a partner battalion from Canada on the day’s program.
The rink will be placed smack dab in the middle of Holman’s runway system, surrounded by aircraft including UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters like the one Howell sat in with his teammates following Friday’s announcement.
After St. Paul Johnson and Luverne’s boys teams, St. Thomas Academy and Hill-Murray’s male squads and the Cretin-Derham Hall and Duluth Northern Stars girls clubs square off, the Wild will cap the day with an 8 p.m. contest against the Arizona Coyotes at the Xcel Energy Center. A collegiate contest will once again be part of the proceedings, but details thereof have yet to be finalized.
Johnson, which has been to the State High School League state tournament 22 times, will celebrate its 100th anniversary playing hockey this year and take on a Luverne team that made its first state tourney appearance last season. The day’s second prep clash features a pair of perennial postseason participants, followed by two marquee girls programs to close up the outdoor portion of what’s become a statewide celebration of hockey.
"Saint Paul is known for being both the capital of the State of Hockey and for supporting our service members and their families," Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said in a statement. "I can’t think of a better way to combine these two qualities than by celebrating Hockey Day Minnesota at Holman Field."
In addition to live coverage from Holman Field and the Xcel Energy Center, event co-sponsor FOX Sports North plans to spend the entire day broadcasting hockey-related content, including live hits from the 34th Brigade’s base in Kuwait. Ticket information will be announced at a later date.
"Hockey fans have been eagerly anticipating news regarding our ninth annual Hockey Day Minnesota event," said Mike Dimond, FOX Sports North’s senior vice president and general manager. "We are excited to bring the outdoor games back to St. Paul and especially proud to pay tribute to the men and women who serve our country by showcasing the Minnesota National Guard at Holman Field and with special features from Kuwait.
"This should be a special year."
That’s true for St. Paul, too, as Hockey Day returns to the state seat for the first time since Jan. 17, 2009. Johnson coach Moose Younghans, who’s lived in the same East Side neighborhood his entire life, coached the Governors to a 4-0 victory that day and also oversaw their participation in the inaugural Hockey Day Minnesota in 2007.
Taking part in what organizers call a state holiday never gets old, Younghans said.
"This is our third time," the coach said, "and we are just completely awed to be able to do it."
The second male contest is a rematch from Hockey Day 2008, a 4-3 Hill-Murray overtime win that still ranks as one of the most thrilling contests in the showcase’s history.
Then comes the girls game, followed by the Wild’s regular-season matchup just across the way at the Xcel Energy Center. The Wild have been a central contributor to Hockey Day since its infancy, but they’ve yet to team up with FOX Sports North, title sponsor Wells Fargo and the city of St. Paul quite like this.
"You don’t just drop a rink on the airport taxiway every day," Wild vice president of brand marketing and communications John Maher said.