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College men's hockey: Growing up on outdoor rinks a special experience for Northland Bulldogs

Andy Welinski 1 / 2
Dominic Toninato2 / 2

Ask a Northland hockey player where they are from and they may tell you a city, neighborhood or school.

Ask that same player where they grew up, and chances are you’ll get their neighborhood outdoor rink.

For Minnesota Duluth senior captain Andy Welinski, that’s Glen Avon. Junior center Dominic Toninato proudly declares himself a Portman Bruin.

Even Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, a native of Hibbing, hasn’t forgotten his roots. His home is the Brooklyn rink.

“If you wanted to play, you had to play goalie first when you were a young kid,” the 51-year-old Sandelin said recounting his childhood. “Guys dragging guys around, making faceoff dots with bloody noses, that’s kind of the rink I grew up in.

“I remember that very vividly and it was a great experience growing up having the rink a half-block away and I’d go down there all the time and learn from some of the older guys.”

The Bulldogs, who began the second half of the season with an outdoor practice in Hermantown, are indoors this weekend hosting Colorado College in NCHC play at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena. Fox Sports North will broadcast tonight’s game before shifting next door to Bayfront Park for Hockey Day in Minnesota.

For some, like Duluth East High School’s 1 p.m. opponents from Lakeville North High School, playing outdoors will be a novelty. But for former Greyhounds Welinski and Toninato, playing hockey outdoors is just another day at the rink.

“It’s something special and pretty much no one else can say they have,” Toninato said about growing up on the outdoor rinks of Duluth. “In Duluth we have seven, eight or nine outdoor facilities. You grow up with your neighborhood kids. You play with them so you have that special bond and friendship and connection being so close to those guys all the time. And then you’re playing your other buddies from around the city. It’s definitely cold at times and whatnot, but you learn a lot on those outdoor rinks.”

Toninato grew up in Lakeside, about eight blocks from the Portman Park rinks. He said it resembled a daycare center in the winter with children like him spending all day skating and playing hockey. Toninato’s favorite game to play was Hongo, also known as all-for-all or one-vs.-everybody.

“You hung out there all day and played hockey with your friends and learned new skills,” Toninato said. “You work on your stick handling and then you go warm up in the warming shack with some pizza and hot cocoa. It was a lot of fun.”

Welinski grew up even closer than Toninato to his winter home — the Glen Avon rinks on Woodland Avenue. As Welinski tells it, every day he’d beat his parents home from school, pack his bag and walk down to the rink. He’d often hit the ice before his buddies would arrive and do his own thing. Heck, the nets weren’t even out yet, he said.

“They weren’t unlocked until 4 p.m. or whatever,” Welinski said.

Welinski said practice came at 7 or 8 p.m., then his parents would have to come down and call him off the ice. If it wasn’t for the bedtime they’d set, Welinski said he and his friends would have stayed out on the ice all night.

Being out in the cold air only adds to the experience, according to the Bulldogs defenseman. He enjoyed battling the elements and didn’t mind having freezing toes. He even enjoyed pushing shovels up and down the rink to clean the ice. It helped with conditioning, he said.

“It’s the little things that don’t seem big. Growing up on an indoor rink with Zambonis, you don’t get to experience that,” Welinski said.

“Just saying it’s special doesn’t do it all the justice. There are a lot of people who don’t have that opportunity. Growing up in bigger cities, there is not as many outdoor rinks, usually. There are some. It’s kind of gone out of fashion a little bit. It’s definitely a huge credit to the city of Duluth for maintaining those rinks, as well as our parents who are committed to volunteer work and putting ice out there for everybody.”

As Sandelin’s story shows, outdoor hockey isn’t limited to Duluth. Throughout the Northland, youth grow up playing on neighborhood rinks and they continue to play outdoors well beyond the mite or squirt level.

UMD freshman defenseman Neal Pionk of Hermantown is one of those who played outdoors every chance he could. Pionk said some of his best hockey memories are Saturday mornings playing outdoors, even as a teenager. He said his mom would drop him off around 10 a.m. and he wouldn’t get picked up until 8 or 9 p.m. that night.

“It was a sense of freedom,” Pionk said. “We’d have practices out there with coaches, but the best thing was rink-ratting with no coaches, just your buddies and trying new things and trying things you wouldn’t use in a game to see if it worked. It was just a lot of fun.”


What: NCHC series

When: 7:07 p.m. today and Saturday

Where: Amsoil Arena

TV: FSN Friday; My9 on Saturday

Radio: WWAX-FM 92.1

Internet: (audio); (video)

Twitter: @mattwellens

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317