Commentary

Minnesota is The State of Hockey

Updated: February 14, 2009, 1:45 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When I asked Roger Godin, the Minnesota Wild's team curator and former director of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, if Minnesota truly deserved the advertising agency-coined description, "The State of Hockey," Godin pounced.

"Oh, absolutely," he said. "We're the 11th province!"

Every weekend is Hockey Weekend Across Minnesota.

At every level.

The state is the USA's hockey showcase.

As USA Hockey, the sport's Colorado Springs, Co.-based national governing body, proclaims and promotes "Hockey Weekend Across America" over the next few days, the signals about the pastime's popularity, influence and reach in the U.S. are seemingly more mixed every day.

It depends on where you look, and by that I mean both: a) geographically -- as in, "What state or region?" and b) organizationally -- as in, "What level?"

While Sun Belt NHL franchises generally are struggling, youth hockey is gaining popularity in those areas. Watching the NHL franchise on television generates interest that goes beyond paying $90 for a ticket. Players from "non-traditional" areas in the U.S. are starting to show up in the NHL, and that trend will continue.

The often disdainful focus on Sun Belt markets in some ways misses a bigger issue: Especially in this economy, the only way most U.S. markets will fill, or come close to filling, their buildings is if their teams win -- and win in stretches sustained enough to create that demand for season tickets, or the pressure to be the first in line for single-game tickets or to use the league's officially sanctioned ticket exchange service. That's as true in Boston, Denver and Chicago as it is in Sunrise, Fla.

Go back in history, in fact, and that kind of regression happened during the Minnesota North Stars' down years. It was one of the reasons owner Norm Green got away with taking the franchise south to Dallas, and also why it still isn't wise to mention his name in polite company in the Twin Cities.

It's unfathomable that it could happen again.

If there's a U.S. market that now seems immune -- or at least relatively so -- to those drastic fluctuations in the NHL, it's Minnesota, where the Wild have sold out every game in their existence.

While the sport has been ingrained in the Minnesota culture for generations, perhaps in some places as much as in those 10 provinces to the north, the reach now is more pervasive than it has even been.

"It's like nowhere else in the U.S.," Godin said. "Maybe 15 years ago, we weren't covering the entire state. We were principally the northeast -- Duluth -- and the northwest, with the Twin Cities and Rochester, but now we're pretty much all over the state."

More than 200 high school jerseys are on display in the Xcel Energy Center as part of the museum-like atmosphere Godin oversees. That advertises the sport's reach, and makes arriving early to the building and taking a trip all the way around the main concourse advisable for a first-time visitor to the Wild's home arena.

The state high school tournament, which is held in the same building, is a blast. And part of the experience is knowing that a school from a smaller town, Roseau, has produced the Broten brothers and still can knock off the larger "city" schools.

College hockey, including the University of Minnesota Gophers, remains popular around the state.

"I was at the [Wild] game the other night in my suite, and we have the university game on TV," said Ontario-born Lou Nanne, the former Gopher and longtime member of the North Stars who became the franchise's coach and general manager -- and who has been a resident of the area for 50 years. "There were 10,000 at the university game and 18,500 at the Wild. And the high school games probably were full, too."

Yes, there are times you wonder, even while knowing the answers: Why can't every place be like this? You know the answers -- involving weather and geography -- even as you answer the question, but you ask it, anyway, almost wistfully.

"The Canadian guys who come through here say it's like where they grew up," said former Wild center Darby Hendrickson, who now dabbles in television work as he manages a local rink. "I think the weather and our culture are what we have going for us here. My kids right now are on the ice at 3 years old."

It's difficult to have more of a "State of Hockey" résumé than Hendrickson. Playing for Richfield High School in the Twin Cities area, Hendrickson was named Minnesota's "Mr. Hockey" in 1991, so he's part of the displays that honor the winners in the Xcel Energy Center. He played two seasons for the Gophers before turning pro and was on the 1994 U.S. Olympic team in Norway. His NHL career spanned nine years, and one of the stops was as an original member of the Wild.

"I think if you drive in the suburbs, you see nets in driveways," he said. "You see ponds that are manicured and kids playing. That's what I grew up with, and I didn't know anything different. Now it's fun to see my own kids on the other side of that. They always want to go out there with their buddies."

The Wild took some heat this season for not having any U.S.-born players until they acquired Ohio-born forward Dan Fritsche on January 29.

But on most nights, the opposing team has American-born players; and on many of those, someone in the visiting dressing room is from Minnesota. One is Colorado defenseman Jordan Leopold, from the Twin Cities suburb of Golden Valley. He played four seasons for the Gophers and won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as NCAA hockey's top player as a senior before joining the Flames in 2002.

"I was exposed to hockey because my uncle was playing high school hockey," Leopold said. "I was a little youngster and I'd be in the stands running around, and that was my first exposure. My dad, who didn't play organized or high school hockey growing up, thought it would be a good idea getting me in hockey. I ended up taking skating lessons, probably when I was 4 or 5. Then I got into it."

At the closest park, Leopold said, "We had pickup games every day and every night. Actually, before high school games, I'd get out of school and go right down to the rink and skate for 20 minutes, go home, maybe take a half-hour nap, then go to our high school game."

His family also had a cabin on Wisconsin's Turtle Lake. "My dad would shovel a rink out, dig a hole and flood it with a five-gallon bucket and we'd set it up and play hockey all weekend," Leopold said.

Nanne arrived in Minnesota as a member of the Gophers in 1959, and he has witnessed the sport going from popular to pervasive, at the high school level and beyond.

"Oh, there's lots more talent now," he said. "The kids are bigger, stronger, and faster, and there's more of them. I started broadcasting the high school tournament 45 years ago, and then there were four or five good guys in the tournament. Maybe one line could play against another line. Now you come to that tournament, and there are four lines that can play, six defensemen, good goaltending. Minnesota has turned out a lot of terrific hockey players at all levels and there are a lot coming up right now.

"I have 11 grandchildren. They played catch with everything and did other sports, but as a 4- or 5-year-old, you can hold a hockey stick, you can have a puck. They can't hold a football or basketball, so it's a little easier for these kids to play it when they're young and enjoy it."

Minnesota, of course, is only one of the three "M's" that are pre-eminent on the U.S. hockey scene, along with Massachusetts and Michigan. But it's the leader.

The Wild even helped organize a third annual Hockey Day Minnesota on Jan. 17, built around their home game against Anaheim. The day also included the Gophers' game against St. Cloud State and two high school games, one outdoors at St. Paul's Phalen Park and the other in the Xcel Energy Center itself.

Nanne's anecdote about all the hockey going on that one night brought up a phenomenon that occurs in all NHL markets where hockey always has been, or has become, popular on the participatory and other levels as well. By helping popularize the sport, the NHL creates some competition, with kids' contests and other games. It's no different in Minnesota, where the Wild's arrival nine years ago gave the NHL a second life in the area. Hockey was popular before, but now it's more popular than ever.

"I think of it as a pyramid and the pro team is at the top," said Godin. "We lost something when the North Stars left in '93, and we got it back. I think our approach in coming up with 'The State of Hockey' concept -- and obviously, I'm biased here -- is absolutely brilliant. I think we've created a mind-set that wasn't there before. The North Stars didn't capitalize on that, and they had plenty to capitalize on. We have even more now."

Godin is quick to admit that an advertising agency came up with, or at least popularized, "The State of Hockey" label.

But, yes, Minnesota lives it.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."