The wind-swept plains of North Dakota have seen their share of booms and busts over the years, from bison to cattle, from oil to wind power, from winter wheat to summer soybeans. Through it all, the good people of the state’s most populous city, Fargo, have prided themselves on rising to meet the ever-changing challenges.
“We have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country for a community our size,” said Chris Birmingham, who works for a Fargo-based investment firm.
“The economy here has always been very stable, and we’ve grown consistently because we’ve avoided a lot of the booms and busts that have affected other parts of the region.”
But all of that stability and calm is changing for at least one aspect of life in Fargo, and Birmingham has a front-row seat for the boom time. As the past president of the Fargo Youth Hockey Association, Birmingham has been an eyewitness to eye-popping numbers of young athletes donning their skates and taping their sticks for the first time, as hockey is exploding in popularity in the southern Red River Valley.
It’s not like hockey is a new sport in Fargo. Former University of Minnesota star Danny Irmen, currently with the Minnesota Wild’s top farm team, fondly recalls his youth hockey years there, spending all day at the rink as two intense rivals – the Raiders of Fargo North and the Flyers of Fargo South – would play one another, first in Squirts, then in Peewees, then Bantams, and so on throughout the afternoon.
He also speaks of the region’s legendary winter frigidity and of stopping at the
sporting goods store for ear covers to wear on those nights when his team would practice outdoors in the bitter cold.
Winters in Fargo haven’t gotten noticeably warmer in the past decade, but the dedicated hockey player in the region today has a better chance of practicing and playing indoors. And the chances of climate-controlled ice times are getting better by the day.
This past fall the 5,000-seat main arena opened at the Urban Plains Center – a new sports complex south of town that houses the United States Hockey League’s expansion Fargo Force. Where huge crowds at the main rink to cheer on the Force and the local high schools are the sizzle, the future of the complex is the real steak of this deal.
When completed, there will be four more indoor rinks on site, which locals hope means an end to the days of youth hockey teams having to skate at 10:30 p.m., or later, on a school night.
It was that promise of growth, not just in the facility but in the community’s hockey scene, which attracted one of the biggest names in North Dakota hockey to Fargo when the Urban Plains Center was still in the blueprint stage.
“I said I’d come and listen, and the next thing you know, I’m here,” said Force coach Dean Blais, who made his name in the sport a decade ago and roughly an hour north of Fargo, in Grand Forks. There, Blais coached the University of North Dakota to a pair of NCAA titles (in 1997 and 2000) before heading to the NHL for a time as an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
He came back to the Red River Valley for family, and for the future, seeing infinite promise in Fargo as a potential hockey hotbed.
“We’re in the largest city in North Dakota, with twice the population of Grand Forks, but maybe one-fourth as many hockey fans right now,” Blais said, ticking off a laundry list of ways the Force will be an active part of the community – from hosting kids’ skating parties to autograph sessions and anything else they can do to create hockey role models. “There’s hockey in this area. It’s coming on.”
Blais’ words about hockey in “the area” are particularly true if one glances just across the Red River to Moorhead, Minn., which has had stunning success in its youth and high school hockey programs for nearly two decades.
While Fargo youth hockey interests worked on ways to feed three (soon to be four) high school programs and best utilize their ice time, Moorhead became a Minnesota hockey powerhouse, and has sent a handful of players to major college programs and to the NHL in recent years, including Jason Blake of the Maple Leafs, Matt Cullen of the Hurricanes and Brian Lee of the Senators.
Birmingham said there’s a healthy cross-border hockey rivalry between Moorhead and Fargo, and admitted that coaches on the North Dakota side haven’t been ashamed to try to learn from the success of their neighbors.
“They’ve instilled a curriculum that builds upon a player’s skills every year,” Birmingham said. “Our Peewees and Squirts have had more success recently, beating Moorhead or at least being more competitive. But part of that comes from working with them, determining what they do at the youth level, that keeps kids improving.”
Hockey is exploding all over this stretch of prairie, and there seems to suddenly be a Fargo hockey success story everywhere you look. While the Force wins fan loyalty as well as games, the Fargo North High School girls’ team is the defending state champions.
To cap it off, some of the world’s best players will be coming to the region in April when Fargo and Moorhead host the IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
Some, like Birmingham, have set their sights smaller, and see the most promise for the future of Fargo hockey in the number of hockey players whose accomplishments won’t appear in the sports pages for at least another decade.
“Our numbers of Mites and Termites are way up this year, so there are a lot of new kids coming to the program,” he said. “More of the best athletes are choosing to try hockey, and if you look at the numbers, there’s a lot of hidden potential for hockey out there.”
With this kind of boom under way, that Fargo hockey potential won’t stay hidden for long.