Six high school teams and a host of other auxiliary pageantry will serve Saturday as the centerpiece of this year's Hockey Day Minnesota, which will largely take place in Elk River, at "The Pit."
ELK RIVER, Minn. — Just off U.S. Highway 10 in the heart of Elk River sits a nondescript, rectangular brick building.
Inside its walls, the local school district’s head honcho keeps his office, which in appearance triples as a conference room and classroom. But more noticeable than the marked-up whiteboard and brown oak meeting table and chairs are three framed, painted images behind Dr. Mark Bezek’s desk.
The first depicts Mike Eruzione firing his iconic shot through the screen of Vasili Pervukhin and past Soviet goalie Vladimir Myshkin. The second, Team USA’s jubilant celebration at that Olympic medal-round classic’s conclusion. The last print shows Jim Craig shaking hands with a Finnish player after the Americans secured gold, the stars and stripes draped over the goalie’s shoulders.
Once a college hockey player at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Bezek attended one of several regional tryouts for that 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team. The current Elk River Area School District superintendent knew he wouldn’t get any further than that, but figured he might as well give it a whirl.
Three decades after one of the most indelible events in this country’s rich sports history, Bezek had the same mentality while conversing with Elk River High School principal Terry Bizal one day in this same office.
The two, along with thousands of other northerners, had recently tuned into FOX Sports North for the latest installment of Hockey Day Minnesota in 2011, the high school portion of which took place outdoors in Moorhead.
"We were in here joking about ‘God, we should do that,’" Bezek said. "’We should go after that.’"
So Bezek, Bizal and the rest of this hockey-crazed — like so many others in the land of currently iced-over lakes — community 33 miles northwest of downtown Minneapolis did.
Vast volunteer efforts and private donations yielded this year’s edition of the state’s daylong celebration of the sport it most cherishes, contained in the picturesque setting of a naturally formed valley in the middle of town. Six high school teams and a host of other auxiliary pageantry will serve Saturday as the centerpiece of this year’s Hockey Day, which also features matchups between the University of Minnesota and Ohio State as well as a late Minnesota Wild matchup with the Dallas Stars.
"Probably the only disappointment," Elk River coach and former North Stars defenseman Gordie Roberts said, "will be Monday when it’s over."
Elk River wasn’t the prep pucks power it is today when Dave Anderson played for the high school during the late 1960s.
"Fourteen-year-old kids that play today could’ve beat our team," Anderson said. "They’d have spanked us."
One mammoth challenge was the lack of an indoor ice arena in the town during that era.
Anderson, his coaches and teammates would often board a bus at 4 a.m. to practice in St. Paul before school.
And when they weren’t doing that, Elk River’s hockey pioneers got their ice time outdoors, either on a sheet of ice outside the high school or in a nearby flooded, earthen bowl known as The Handke Pit.
Prehistoric glacier movements created "The Pit" — as the townspeople affectionately call it — and the school district’s first superintendent, James W. Clark, oversaw its manual transformation from a marshy pond into a multipurpose athletics compound. Starting in 1921, Clark presided over a group of Elk River football players that used horses, wagons and shovels to drain and level the space into what became a home for football in the fall and baseball in the spring and summer.
And pretty much every winter since then, they’ve pumped water into the valley and turned it into a distinctly natural outdoor ice facility.
A village centerpiece was forged at the corner of Main Street and Norfolk Avenue. Originally, it was referred to as Elkhi Stadium.
Dedicated in 1925, it was later enlarged as part of the New Deal. Today, The Pit is listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites.
"It may seem to most now living in or near that hole in the ground, a peculiar physical creation for which to take pride and satisfaction," Clark wrote shortly before his passing in a 1983 letter detailing The Handke Pit’s creation. "To which the enthusiasts have come to respond, ‘Find me another and better hole in the ground!’"
Today, that hole in the ground serves as a multi-use frozen surface for all ages. City workers flood it to the edges and maintain two hockey rinks in the middle, where pickup games occur on a nightly basis.
Those without sticks and pucks glide around the remaining ice surrounding the hockey rinks.
Around sundown, the lights come on. "It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting at night down there," Bezek blushed.
It’s here that Anderson’s hockey teams did much of their training. And it’s here that Anderson has spent the better part of the past year forming a suitable site for Hockey Day Minnesota 2014.
Now a technical service director for Cretex Concrete Products in town, Anderson headed up an effort to give The Pit a $100,000 makeover — state-of-the-art outdoor hockey ice, bleachers, scoreboards, tents, LED lights, additional hillside seating, wiring for FSN’s live telecast, and so forth.
The money came from generous donors and ticket, merchandise and concession sales. The labor came from volunteers, many of whom were required to help out as part of their membership in the community’s youth hockey association.
Between its added bleachers, benches hemmed into the hillside and standing-room space, the bowl now can accommodate at least 4,000 spectators, Bezek said.
Anderson also pulled off construction of an expansive athletic complex west of Elk River over a 17-year period and carves out miles of cross-country ski paths at nearby Woodland Trails.
Those projects pale in comparison to this one, he said.
"I am very involved in the community," said Anderson, who along with Bezek and the rest of the effort’s organizers didn’t find out they’d be hosting Hockey Day until this past spring due to the NHL lockout. "I’ve never done anything this intense in this short of a time."
What resulted is what FSN executive producer Tony Tortorici calls a made-for-television venue.
"It’s just a very unique setting and has the history," Tortorici said. "It’ll show well on TV because of where it is."
In addition to carrying more than 21 hours of hockey coverage, FSN will deploy its technologically advanced Phantom Cam — which shows live game action in unprecedentedly sharp slow-motion detail — during a high school hockey game for the first time, and use its alternate PLUS channel as a social media hub where viewers can post tweets and pictures from their own Hockey Day-related experiences. In between game coverage, video features telling hockey-related stories from around the state will be shown.
Select coverage will be broadcast nationally on FOX Sports 2, as well.
For the morning and afternoon, The Pit will take center stage, thanks to the thousands of hours and dollars invested by Elk River and the surrounding area’s citizens.
The renovations helped push Bezek’s bid through in the first place.
"Elk River wanted to do this first-class," Anderson said, "and there wasn’t anybody that didn’t think that should be done."
Said Bezek: "There’s so much community pride in this. I have to keep reminding them ‘we’re not hosting the Olympics. It’s a day of hockey.’"
Taking after so many hockey dads before him, Josh Spaniol erected a makeshift rink in the backyard of his Rochester home. The Lourdes High School coach’s boy plays at the Squirt level and passes a lot of hours with his dad on the family’s 80×30-foot playing surface.
With two ice arenas in town, such settings aren’t as commonplace as they used to be. Spaniol said only three or four of his players learned the game primarily on a backyard sheet of ice.
So facing off with Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in Saturday’s opening matchup carries more weight than just statewide and national TV exposure.
"It’s a big, big honor for us, but more importantly for our kids," said Spaniol, whose squad enters Saturday 3-11-1 but Monday knocked off Eau Claire Memorial, Wisconsin’s No. 3 prep team and a defending state champion. "Around here, we used to live and die on our rinks. Now, you go around town and don’t see a lot of kids outside. We need more kids outside; I think it’s starting to come back around."
Led by freshman forward Montana Streit, Lourdes takes on Cloquet at 10:15 a.m. Saturday. Not counting a Thursday night tilt, Cloquet is 5-10-1 and paced by senior forward James Newgren.
In the day’s second game, Elk River — 10-3-0 as of Thursday afternoon and ranked eighth in Class 2A — hosts Stillwater (9-6-0) at 1 p.m. Junior Jake Jaremko headlines a group of several Elks contemplating junior hockey following the school year, while senior John Heddle is the Ponies’ top offensive threat.
Elk River’s girls square off with nearby Anoka at 4 p.m. in a contest that will be shown via tape delay on FOX Sports North.
Throughout the day on an auxiliary rink, special-needs and youth players will lace up their skates and get some ice time.
Back in the Twin Cities, Minnesota’s men host the Buckeyes at 5 p.m., and the Wild tap sticks with Dallas at 8 p.m.
The local Division I college and NHL teams will have the pleasant confines of Mariucci Arena and the Xcel Energy Center to celebrate the day.
But in Elk River, the forecast calls for a high of 19 degrees and 10-15 mph winds mixed with some mild snow. For that reason, participating teams have tried to get some work in at their local outdoor rinks this week.
"If it is snowing, then similar to what the NHL has gone to, you have to play a little simpler game," said Roberts, the Elk River coach and a United States Hockey Hall of Fame member. "The elements definitely will dictate how, as a coach, you have to give instructions on what the style is and what you have to do."
Roberts is well-versed with the nuances of outdoor pucks. Growing up in Detroit, he and his two older brothers — including Doug Roberts, also a former NHLer — knocked each other around in their backyard. Even while he played with North Stars, Gordie Roberts and teammate Bobby Smith would occasionally head to the outdoor ice at Lewis Park in Edina and play shinny hockey with the locals (Roberts, who lives in Plymouth now, said he remains a regular there). Four years ago, the two-time Stanley Cup winner played in a bitterly cold outdoor Whalers-Bruins alumni game featuring wind gusts of more than 30 mph.
The conditions shouldn’t be quite that unfavorable Saturday, but they will play a role.
"You definitely want the wind behind you," Roberts said with a grin.
But Roberts and his fellow Hockey Day coaches concur any adverse weather is well worth enkindling the spirit of outdoor hockey at the high school level, much as the NHL has done with its annual Winter Classic.
"It’s how the game started," said Stillwater coach Matt Doman, who learned to skate on a frozen lake in his hometown of Crystal, Ill. "It’s how I grew up playing the game. Some kids haven’t played as much outdoor hockey as we once did."
While The Handke Pit registers as remarkably unique, the usual home of Elk River’s high school hockey program is a bit more typical.
What does stand out among Elk River Ice Arena’s black-and-red adorned walls, though, is a set of four framed hockey sweaters, each bearing the name and number of a former Elk that’s gone on to the NHL.
Paul Martin. Joel Otto. Dan Hinote. The Wild’s own Nate Prosser. The quartet of talent got its start here. And all of them honed their skills down in The Pit.
Saturday, a current crop of prep players will honor that lore.
"I’ve been waiting for this ever since I heard it’s going to be in Elk River," said Elks goalie MacLean Berglove, who’s hopefully moving onto juniors after this, his senior season. "It’s going to be a lot of tradition."
That last word is one you’ll hear Roberts, who played for six different NHL franchises and kissed the cup twice with Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992, uses frequently.
It’s why he spurned scouting and potential pro coaching assistantships to coach here and run camps and elite training leagues throughout the offseason. It’s why Spaniol, Doman and Cloquet coach Dave Esse call being part of Hockey Day such a gargantuan honor. It’s why more than 3,000 presale tickets for Saturday’s prep games had been sold as of midday Thursday. It’s why the town of Elk River poured its money and manpower into preparing The Pit.
And this sport and this town’s tradition is why, folks around here say, Saturday sets up to be quite unlike any other in the State of Hockey.