Hockey Day Minnesota: Luverne looks to become synonymous with hockey

The Blue Mounds State Park’s quartzite cliff rises 100 feet out of the ground in Southwest Minnesota. A herd of bison grazes nearby. Bluestem restaurant bustles while tourists visit the photo gallery dedicated to renowned nature photographer and city native Jim Brandenburg.

This is Luverne, Minn.

The townsfolk are friendly. Most conversations start with a joke and end with a "nice talking to you."

Head 30 miles east, and you’re in South Dakota. Go 15 miles south, and you’ll come across a "Welcome to Iowa" sign.

Three blocks north of Interstate 90 on Highway 75, Blue Mounds Ice Arena beckons puck-loving locals — an oasis of pristine bleachers and a smooth sheet of ice in a part of the State of Hockey that traditionally contradicts Minnesota’s zeal for the game.

Not here, though.

Luverne fights the same population decline affecting every similar agricultural town throughout the Midwest. Most if its millennials have left, and the ones who stay don’t have many options for employment — they can farm, sell computer insurance at Berkley Technology Services or find a job at Sanford Health’s Luverne Medical Center location, to name a few.

For decades, this was a basketball town. But thanks to a core of dedicated parents, constant updates to the hometown barn (at one point, that’s basically all it was) and multiple generations of talent, Luverne has become a city that better fits the romantic vision of a place where Minnesota kids grow up with sticks in their hands and skates on their feet.

"Success breeds success," Cardinals high school hockey color commentator and unofficial local pucks historian Tim Connell says.

And the newest program to take part in Hockey Day Minnesota hopes to become synonymous with it.

Hockey Day Minnesota Homepage

Anticipation

Steve Smedsrud, his son Tony and hundreds of other Luvernians filed into the Xcel Energy Center on March 5 of last year. They walked past the high school hockey sweaters tacked on the wall outside the rink, and their faces changed tint beneath the flashing lights from the X’s ribbon boards wrapping around the top of the lower bowl.

The Cardinals lost 6-3 to Hermantown in the first round of the Class A bracket that day, but that’s not the enduring memory for anyone who made the 214-mile trek up Highway 169 to the Twin Cities.

All they want to remember is how competitive Luverne was in its inaugural state tournament appearance. How Hermantown’s first goal was "just nerves," and how the Cards were down by just one midway through the second period. How the lower rim of the Wild’s home digs was packed with red-clad spectators.

And how almost all of them showed up at Mariucci Arena the next day — for a consolation semifinal.

"It was like a dream," said Steve Smedsrud, whose son Chaz — a junior on this year’s team — had an assist in that quarterfinal loss to Hermantown. "I remember skipping school when I was in high school to watch the state tournament. I never thought it’d happen here."

Steve has lived in Luverne his whole life and played on the high school’s first-ever organized teams in the ’70s. His older son Tony played in the early 2000s, shortly after the program became MSHL sanctioned in 1999.

And Tony’s brother Chaz, the state’s leading scorer this winter, was part of the culmination of years of striving to make Luverne pucks relevant — and not just in their corner of the state.

"It’s been kind of humbling," said Tony, who played on a team that won more than 20 games his sophomore year, "because we thought we were pretty good, but in reality we weren’t, because these guys really brought it to a whole new level."

The 2014 state tourney was the coming-out party. Saturday, the St. Paul Downtown Airport’s Holman Field will serve as the biggest stop on the follow-up tour.

The Cardinals, 16-2-0 and ranked 15th in Class A by Let’s Play Hockey, take on traditional power St. Paul Johnson at 10 a.m. Saturday against the backdrop of a fully active airfield — National Guard helicopters, cargo planes and all — for Hockey Day Minnesota 2015. Luverne won’t shut down like it did for the state tournament, but nearly everyone interviewed for this story promised a substantial crowd.

"All the DVRs back home will be set to record this event," Connell said. And those that can’t make it will be watching on FOX Sports North, along with a worldwide streaming audience that includes 300 deployed National Guard soldiers in Kuwait.

"It’s just us getting our name out there," Chaz Smedsrud said.

As usual, doing that requires getting out of Luverne.

Germination

With slightly warmer winters than the state’s upper region and few large population centers, southwest Minnesota isn’t all that conducive to hockey. Until last year, folks pointed to Luverne’s 1964 state basketball championship — claimed at a time when the high school hoops tournament was one of the Twin Cities’ hottest tickets — as its crowning athletic achievement. "Basketball is everywhere here," Steve Smedsrud said. "Every little town has it, and it’s a commitment and it’s rare for town of 500 to have an (ice) arena. And the travel — the closest other arena in Minnesota is 30 miles away, and after that it’s 70 miles away."

Starting in 1989, Smedsrud, Connell and a group of hockey-loving parents set out to change that.

Along with the city and the school district, they put together the plans and resources to move indoors. For years, Luverne had played hockey outside. "You had an outdoor ice arena," said Mark Aukes, the father of Cardinals captain Jake Aukes, "and half the time, there was no ice."

So in 1991, Blue Mound Ice Arena opened. That first season, players walked across mat-covered gravel floors to get to the ice. There was no insulation. No glass, just chain link fence above an old set of boards. Behind that, fans could sit on a $150 set of bleachers.

"But," Connell said, "we had ice."

The project cost just half a million dollars, mostly because it was put together via volunteer labor. Every offseason comes with an addition, and today, Blue Mound — with a state-of-the-art entrance lobby, updated locker rooms, a dryland training room, a shooting facility and yes, glass — is revered as southwest Minnesota’s top place to catch a high school game.

But that’s not simply because of the venue.

With the rink came an "anytime, anywhere" type of mentality, from the prep level all the way down to Mites.

"A lot of programs down here were worried about how they might get beat and how far they had to travel for it, but we wanted our kids to play at that Class A level," Connell said. "Wins and losses were never that big of a deal; we didn’t want to go 0-25, but we understood that even if we were 8-15 but playing against good competition, we were learning what it takes to win."

Warroad (480 miles away). Hibbing (401). Duluth (362). St. Cloud (199). Hutchinson (167). Alexandria (181). Albert Lea (148). These were places where hockey is second to none, and these were the kind of players Luverne would need to skate with in order to perform on a level worthy of statewide respectability.

Besides, it’s not easy to get many out-of-area teams to trek halfway across the state just to play what they might consider a no-name team.

"A lot of the schools in our old conference, the Southwest Conference, added high school hockey about the same time (we did)," Luverne activities director Todd Oye said, "so you’d get a half dozen, 10 games from your conference, but it’s difficult to get a lot of teams to come to Luverne right away just because of our location."

Related content

So almost every winter weekend, parents, kids and cornucopias of hockey gear began into vans and SUVs. Dedicated dads like Connell, Aukes and Steve Smedsrud coached at just about every youth level. Others worked with their youngsters on the side. Moms made sure the players and their families were fed. There wasn’t always a mass amount of talent to choose from. "One year, when I was a Bantam coach, we had 10 skaters and a goalie," said Connell, whose sons Pete and Pat also played for Luverne earlier this millennium. "People would say, ‘Where’s the rest of your team?’"

But stiff competition began producing a tough, unflappable brand of youth hockey player. And more and more youngsters wanted in on the experience. The Cardinals’ younger-level teams started winning. By the time they got to high school, as early as Tony Smedsrud’s time in Luverne’s Detroit Red Wings-style jerseys, they were much more seasoned than some of the local competition.

It became common for the Cardinals to reach their section championship, only to come up one win short of the state tournament.

The town started buying in, too.

On a good night, 700-800 of Luverne’s 4,600 residents will show up for a home game. Something close to double that made it to the 2014 section title win against New Ulm, even though it was rescheduled and moved to Mankato because of the weather.

"Every square inch of space was full of people," Tony Smedsrud said.

After the Cardinals took Totino-Grace to double-overtime in last year’s Class A consolation final, Eagles coach Mark Loahr pledged to bring his team to Luverne this season for a regular-season game. Schools from the big city, simply put, don’t generally venture that far out of its bounds — at least not in Luverne’s direction.

They might not want to go back. The Cardinals won 6-5 after falling behind 2-0 in the first period in front of a rocking Blue Mound crowd. Afterward, Loahr told the Luverne coaching staff he’d never seen anything like it.

The sacrifice and commitment it took to meld this place into a relevant hockey community is not unlike that of the average hockey parent. The only difference is in this part of the state, sitting in a car four six hours and pouring money into fees, hotels, equipment, food and the gas tank is a relatively newer phenomenon.

"It has to do with the kids that were in last year’s senior group and our parents that are committed to playing A hockey," said high school coach Derrick Brown, a Princeton, Minn. native. "These parents bought into traveling around Minnesota, getting them the necessary exposure at the youth levels.

"Other teams’ parents don’t buy into that kind of travel out of the area."

Said Mark Aukes: "It wasn’t like, ‘Oh geez, I’ve got to go to another hockey tournament.’ It was, ‘Let’s go have some fun.’

"We knew it could turn into something if we were dedicated to it, and that’s what happened."

Motivation

When he was a kid just learning how to stop, Jake Aukes wasn’t as in tune with the big picture. He gets it now.

"When you’re younger, you just don’t see it and think about it," the senior forward said. "The weekends (our coaches and parents) gave up going from the state’s southwest corner to travel so far to play, it was huge how much time and effort they put in. They were never afraid to go the extra mile for us. Really, they’re everything to us."

Today, Luverne is the kind of place where Aukes can wear the "C" for a team that’s scoring an astounding 8.44 goals per game. Where Chaz Smedsrud can tally a Minnesota-best 27 goals and 46 assists. Where a freshman like Jaxon Nelson — the state’s second-leading goal scorer with 33 — can start the conversation about when, not if, he’ll leave for junior hockey.

But one state tourney trip isn’t nearly enough to solidify a program as a power. There’s a realization Luverne isn’t there yet.

Just that it’s still on the way.

"It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come," Jake Aukes said. "When we were Bantams, nobody had any respect for us. We’ve really proved them wrong the last few years.

"But we haven’t done anything this year."

But Brown, the head boys coach, says the school — which did have some .500-type years in the mid-2000s — is poised for "a real nice run here" during the next five or six years.

Nelson is part of Luverne’s best class ever, Brown said. Three of the Cardinals’ top five scorers are freshmen. Luverne’s Bantam A team is ranked 11th in the state.

So the pieces are in place.

"We recognize we’re not a hockey power," Connell said. "We are an enthusiastic hockey community that, within the class we play and the size of town we have, has a very respectable program."

"We’re not delusional," Connell adds.

As he corrects himself, he can almost be heard winking through the phone. "I shouldn’t say that; some of us might be."

Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter