It’s an early autumn morning on the eastern plains of South Dakota and the foggy haze is beginning to burn
off, exposing endless fields of grain sorghum plants that cover the 11,000 acre Granite Springs game preserve.
Off in the distance, hunters dressed in bright orange are barely visible as they fan out across the waist-high crops to begin a slow march forward. With guns at the ready, they stomp and crunch through the field, trying to make as much noise as possible. A few yards ahead, hunting dogs bounce and weave through the stalks in an attempt to roust pheasants from their hiding places.
The sound of breaking stalks and crunching feet are interrupted by the calls of local guide Shane Olean coaxing on his dogs to find the feathered flyers.
“Up bird, up bird,” he shouts before releasing a series of short blasts from a plastic whistle.
Suddenly, and without warning, a pheasant explodes from the stalks, looking for the shortest escape route from the four-legged trespassers. The call of “HEN” alerts hunters that the bird in flight is a female pheasant, which signals that they should hold their fire.
Heart rates return to normal as the march continues until the dogs usher another bird into the air. Suddenly, the cry of “ROOSTER” leads to a barrage of 12-gauge shotgun blasts echoing through the fields. As the lifeless bird falls to the earth, feathers float softly to the ground while the dogs race to retrieve their prize and bring it back to their master. Praises of “nice shot” and “good shooting” greet the hunter as he quickly reloads.
In the world of game birds, pheasants are as good as gold in this simple and unspoiled part of the state. It is estimated that the yearly campaign, which runs from the third Saturday in October until early in the new year, brings in between $80 and 100 million annually, making it big business in the state.
Hunters come to Mitchell, S.D., every fall in the hopes of shooting their limit of tasty fowl. For one group of hunters, their weekend mission ran a little deeper. They came to this humble town, two hours from the Minnesota border, to partake in a little goodwill hunting for a great cause.
The inaugural Pro Hockey Celebrity Hunt brought hunters and hockey fans together to raise money for the Sam Tronnes Scholarship fund, which provides aid to deserving high school hockey players from South Dakota. And if a little fun was had along the way, even better.
Helping with both parts of the program were Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs; 20-year NHL veteran Pat Verbeek, who is now director of pro scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning; long-time coaches Mike Sertich and Lou Vairo; and a handful of former Olympians, including Len Lilyholm (1968), Dave Christian (1980) and Dave Jensen (1984).
Hunters from around the Dakotas, Wyoming and Minnesota joined forces with these hockey dignitaries to cover the pastures and fields of one of the country’s most fertile hunting grounds, swapping stories about past successes and the ones that got away on the ice and from their gun sights during two days of hunting.
“Our goal is to make sure you leave here with a big smile on your face and wanting to know when you’ll be able to do this again,” Dave Tronnes, former president of the South Dakota Amateur Hockey Association and the driving force behind the event, says during the opening night banquet that netted $10,000 from a silent auction that included works from local artists and signed hockey memorabilia.
Then, looking around the room, he jokingly adds, “I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m not sure how smart it is to give hockey players guns.”
When talking with Burke and Verbeek, both avid sportsmen who relieve the tension of their high-pressure hockey jobs by escaping into the great outdoors, they agree it is a brilliant move.
As the GM of the Maple Leafs, missing a home game against the New York Rangers is akin to skipping a child’s birthday party for a business trip. But this is neither, and as patriotic as Burke is, if he can get away to support a great cause in the name of USA Hockey, he will be there.
“I’m the boss, so that always makes it easier,” says Burke, who took over the reins of the Maple Leafs in Nov. 2008. But more importantly, he adds, “You have to remember that I didn’t begin playing hockey until I was 13 years old, and at that time USA Hockey coaches were always there to help me whenever I asked for guidance on how to get better. So anytime I can do anything to return the favor, I will be there.”
Technology helps Burke stay wired to his team even when he’s a thousand miles away. Hours after the first day of the charity hunt is over, Burke sits in the front row at a Saturday night banquet constantly checking his Blackberry for updates on his team’s progress. Despite outshooting the Rangers, 36-24, the Leafs lose the game, 2-0, which leaves him in a bit of a sour mood.
Still, the loss can’t dampen his generous spirit as he not only bids on several autographed USA Hockey jerseys, but also offers his seats to a future game at the Xcel Energy in St. Paul, Minn., to help raise money. He also agrees to continue on for a second day in the fields, where local hunters pay upwards of $250 for a chance to hunt and talk hockey with one of the game’s most influential leaders.
By the end of the weekend, Tronnes estimates that $25,000 will be raised to help some of South Dakota’s finest high school hockey players continue their education at the collegiate level. A portion of the proceeds will also support USA Hockey’s Brendan Burke internship, named in honor of Burke’s 21-year-old son who passed away in early 2010.
Both causes are obviously close to Burke’s heart. As much as he places a premium on grit and toughness from his players at the pro and Olympic levels, he stresses the importance of a good education, as the graduate of Harvard Law School tells the youth hockey players in the audience during his address at Saturday’s banquet.
Whether in a shuttle van heading out to the hunting site or sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, the general manager of the silver-medal winning U.S. Olympic Team was equally adept at talking hunting or hockey.
“I love to hunt and fish,” admits Burke, who didn’t start hunting until he was 37 years old. “Sometimes my work schedule can get in the way of my hunting. But to put it into the proper context, you have to remember that I have the greatest job in the world.”
Verbeek feels the same way. Since retiring in 2002, the veteran player known as “ The Little Ball Of Hate” for his tenacious and fearless style of play, has found that his windows of hunting opportunity have opened wider.
“I love to hunt,” says the only player in NHL history to amass more than 500 career goals and 2500 career penalty minutes. “Now that I’m retired [from playing] I have more chances to do what I love.”
Now living in Michigan, where he spent two years as a player and four as a scout, Verbeek has a little more flexibility when it comes to escaping into the great outdoors for a long weekend.
“When I was a player, it was a lot harder,” Verbeek says. “Now, I can spend more time in the great outdoors, which I love.”
Still, by midday, Verbeek hustles from the field in time to catch a flight back to Detroit. Playtime is over and there are games to watch and players to scout.
Plus, it’s his wife’s birthday on Monday.
“I was on a hunting trip last year,” he says, “and I’m not sure if she would be as understanding this time around.”