Frozen Fun

Subzero Temperatures Provide Perfect Backdrop For Outdoor College Game On Minnesota Lake
Abby Meinke

As the Thermometer dropped below zero on a frigid January night on the shores of Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota, Tom Serratore looked out at the crowd of nearly 4,000 spectators. They were bundled from head to toe and seemingly oblivious to the subzero temperatures. 

"Our fans were not going to be denied," said the long-time head coach of Bemidji State University's men's hockey team. "Whether it was 20-above or 20-below, it did not matter. When it was as cold as it was, I think they embraced it that much more."

What fans were embracing was beyond a regular season college hockey game, because the game wasn't like any other contest between the Beavers and their Western Collegiate Hockey Association opponents from Michigan Tech. 

Instead of being played inside the comfortable confines of BSU's Sanford Center, the Friday night puck drop was played on a hand-crafted rink on Lake Bemidji's south shore as a part of Hockey Day Minnesota, an annual celebration of the game of hockey in its purest form.

There's a certain allure surrounding outdoor hockey these days. The NHL showcases its outdoor Winter Classic at some of the country's largest football and baseball venues, along with the fairly new addition of the Stadium Series that does the same. 

And as hockey grows in warmer climates around the U.S. and over-structuring continues to take over the purity of sports, outdoor hockey remains especially appealing. Perhaps that's part of the catalyst to the popularity and uptick in hosting outdoor games in recent years: the charm of bringing hockey back to its roots. 

Hockey Day Minnesota aims to celebrate just that. What started as a partnership between Fox Sports North and the Minnesota Wild 13 years ago has grown in popularity, size and coverage. 

Projected temperatures for this year's event were well below zero but that didn't stop the community from making the weekend something special. While Hockey Day Minnesota generally spans the entirety of just one Saturday in January, this year featured hockey activities on Thursday and Friday as well. 

Following a high school girls' contest on Thursday, the town's Div. I program hosted the Huskies. 

Serratore, who is also a Bemidji native, reveled in reflection on his hometown's execution for the weekend.

"Our community really embraced this and did an outstanding job," said Serratore, who is in his 18th season at the helm with the Beavers. "We had over 500 volunteers and a committee that was second to none. When they knew it was going to be this cold they took it as a challenge and knocked it out of the park."

By puck drop the temperature outside plummeted to minus-17 degrees. While temps below freezing sound ideal for ice conditions, it presented a new challenge for ice technicians.

"Optimal ice temperature is about 15 degrees," said lead ice technician Cory Portner. "When you're hitting minus-17 we essentially had to heat the ice and keep it from freezing too much." 

Those in attendance did their best to keep from freezing too much themselves. Speckled throughout the crowd local youth players squeezed their team jerseys over multiple layers of jackets. Adults wore full-body snowmobile suits and college students did their best to boast school pride with their green and white apparel mostly in the form of hats and mittens.

Bemidji native Howie Borden was among those undeterred by the cold. He drove more than three hours to be home for the weekend's event. 

"For most of the older generations that played here, this means a great deal to us," Borden said. "We grew up in the cold, playing pick-up hockey. It was engrained in us from the start. It's a part of our culture up here, and there's a lot of nostalgia for us."  

Beavers defenseman Dillon Eichstadt understood Borden's sentiments. The senior grew up not far from where Friday's contest was played and honed his skills with the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association. 

"To play an organized game here really brings me back," Eichstadt said with a grin frozen to his face. 

To make the evening even more special, Eichstadt was placed in the hero's role. With a wrist shot 3:05 into overtime he lifted the Beavers to a critical, 4-3, victory. 

"When it's all said and done, that will definitely be a top memory," he noted. "At the time, I was just focused on winning the game, but the more I look back on it I'm realizing how special that really was."

Outdoor hockey will always have that charm about it. As Coach Serratore put it: "It's like taking things back to the sandlot or playing at Wrigley Field." 

"Times have changed; everything is so structured and over-organized in all aspects of all sports. Kids don't often have the luxury to just go out and play anymore," he said. 

"This takes you back to the days when there weren't coaches; when things weren't overly organized and kids just played for the purity of the sport." 

Abby Meinke is a freelance writer based in Watkins, Minn.





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