'The Fabric of Our State': Why Hockey Means More in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — Ask a Minnesotan what hockey means to the people of the state, and you're likely to get the same line.

Hockey means more in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

It explains everything you need to know. Hockey is a religion in Canada. It's extremely popular in Massachusetts and Michigan. It's growing tremendously in states that don't boast frozen lakes, like Texas and Florida.

But Minnesota is the "State of Hockey." Its youth hockey programs are structured differently than in any other state. It has six Division I NCAA programs and holds high school boys hockey tournaments that draw as well as the Minnesota Wild.

"It's a lifestyle," said Jessi Pierce, a journalist who has chronicled hockey in the Land of 1,000 Lakes for multiple publications for more than a decade. "It sounds so trite to say, right? But it's often compared to Texas and football with how it's everything. Being here in Minnesota, it's very much about the community. Hockey is a way to bring a community together."

Community is emphasized at every level in Minnesota hockey, right from the time kids start skating on frozen ponds.

Skating on outdoor rinks is a rite of passage for hockey players all over the world and will be celebrated on a grand scale New Year's Night when the NHL holds the 2022 Winter Classic at Target Field with the Minnesota Wild hosting the St. Louis Blues.

The entire event is designed to look like a pond hockey game and celebrate the game of hockey in the State of Hockey. The experience should be authentic, right down to the expected subzero temperatures.

"Hey, we live in the winter. This is going to come every year, whether you want it to or not," said University of Minnesota coach Bob Motzko. "The lakes freeze over and it's just part of our culture, and we're a state that doesn't sit indoors in the winter. We get outside.

"Hockey is a big part of the fabric of our state."

Motzko coaches a program that is tied for the most active NHL players. Minnesota Hockey, the sport's governing body in the state, has produced NHL players and some of the top women's players in the world.

Clearly, the state is doing something right.

So what exactly are they doing in Minnesota? To find out, you have to start in the communities.

The Local Model

Most players have the same origin story: They played outside on a neighborhood rink or on a frozen pond. Kids play "shinny"—a pickup game played outdoors—with friends all day. It also leads to very painful lessons learned about cold weather.

"I would freeze my hands and my toes, and you go inside and they would thaw, and you cry because you're frostbitten," former NHL center Rob McClanahan said.

"When I was really little, my dad would take me out there and I'd wait until my feet got so cold to tell him," said Minnesota Wild forward Nick Bjugstad. "I'd be bawling my eyes out in the warming house, and he'd run my feet under cold water."

All-day games of shinny eventually give way to more structured hockey, typically through Minnesota Hockey. An affiliate of USA Hockey, the organization was founded in 1947 and relies on volunteers to coach the 140 community association teams. Those teams feed straight into the local high schools, so kids grow up playing with their neighbors and classmates.

"More and more communities built rinks, as more and more kids started playing. It's just kind of viewed as this public service for kids just like a regular park, park department or playground for kids," said Glen Andresen, the executive director of Minnesota Hockey. "Over the years, people have worked to protect that model because they've, they've seen that it works."

Andresen points to the number of Minnesota natives playing in the NHL and the women playing at high levels as evidence to its success. Three of those products will be playing in the Winter Classic: the Wild's Bjugstad and Alex Goligoski and the Blues' Justin Faulk.

"When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was make the Blaine High School team," Bjugstad said.

Bjugstad made the Minnesota State High School Championship tournament three times when he was in high school. Despite the fact that Blaine never won a state title while he was there, those tournaments still provided some of his favorite memories in hockey.

The tournament is one of Minnesota's greatest hockey traditions. It's an annual gathering of communities from all over the state. The girls and boys tournaments regularly draw 18,000 fans to the Xcel Energy Center, the Wild's home rink.

"It's one of the hardest tickets to get," McClanahan said. "High school hockey in Minnesota is where you want to be."

Motzko never participated in the tournament as a player, but he's been to several as a coach to recruit, and as a parent. He watched his late son, Mack Motzko, play in two of them. Mack died over the summer, at age 20, making the memories of this particular tournament especially meaningful.

"I was only able to watch for the stands as a player and we never made it. And then all the years being a coach I've been able to attend, but I got to live it watching my son and see what it meant to him," Motzko said. "And it's special. I'm telling you, it was truly something special to watch my son have gone through that."

This community-based system was heavily influenced by John Mariucci, who is often referred to as the "godfather" of Minnesota hockey. The Eveleth, Minnesota, native played hockey and football for Minnesota, later going on to serve as the head coach of the program. He opted not to recruit Canadian players, but local players instead. The youth programs began to grow as players saw opportunities to play for top college programs and beyond.

The model is successful because of the accessibility: Less travel means fewer costs, and fewer costs mean more programs for more kids of all ages and genders.

"When you have a lot of kids playing, you're gonna develop a lot of good players," Andresen said.

Herbie's Hockey

Mariucci's influence extends past just association hockey. You might have heard of a coach named Herb Brooks. While the late coach was probably best known for coaching the 1980 Miracle on Ice team and the New York Rangers, the Saint Paul native is better known in his home state for his local contributions.

Brooks played for Mariucci at Minnesota and was mentored by him as well. Ask any coach around the state and they'll tell you they were shaped by Brooks' methods in some way. The six Division I programs? That was always Brooks' vision. Accessibility? That was a Brooks belief.

"He helped with the St. Cloud State program. When St. Thomas joined Division I [becoming the sixth team], that was kind of Herb Brooks' dream," Pierce said. "He wanted to see hockey be successful at every level in Minnesota."

McClanahan played for him in college and on the 1980 Olympic team. He said he never really got to know Brooks off the ice because the coach was so devoted to improving the product on it. Brooks was an early adoptee of dryland training, hiring Jack Blatherwick, another Minnesota native who is largely considered to be a pioneer of interval training in hockey, to condition the Miracle on Ice team.

Now, dryland conditioning is as much a part of the game as skating.

"His firm belief was it didn't matter how good you were or how skilled you were," McClanahan said. "If you weren't in shape, it didn't matter. And by being in such good condition, we were mentally tougher than anybody we played."

Brooks was not an easy coach to play for, McClanahan notes, but he made each player believe that they could be better. It's a philosophy McClanahan tries to use as the coach of the Blake School boys hockey team.

"He made all of us realize that we were capable of far more than we ever thought," McClanahan said. "And whether we had won the gold medal or not, I would be saying that today. The gold medal was frosting on the cake."

Brooks, like Mariucci before him, influenced generations of coaches, players and fans. Pierce's husband proposed to her in front of the statue of Brooks in Saint Paul. Motzko helped him transition the program at St. Cloud State to Division I and called their first meeting a "magical moment." McClanahan still draws inspiration from his former coach.

"He's the most iconic coach in my eyes," Bjugstad said. "He's done so much for the sport and for this state and even the United States."

Looking Beyond Minnesota

The Wild have embraced the community hockey culture in Minnesota since the franchise's inception, so it's a particular point of pride for locals to see this team on an outdoor stage like this.

Even after the game is over, Minnesotans want hockey fans to know how important this sport is to them.

"It's kind of a reminder that, geez, we have so many cool things," Andresen said. "And this is just an added piece to that."