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Hockey Day in Duluth: 'Ice rink of dreams' draws a crowd

Northeastern Minnesota's love of hockey was on display in Duluth on Saturday. While only a few Minnesota high school hockey teams took the ice during the 10th annual Hockey Day Minnesota, support for dozens of hockey teams could be seen everywher...

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Fans react after Duluth East scores its second goal against Lakeville North during Hockey Day Minnesota at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth. Close to 5,500 people attended the games Saturday. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

Northeastern Minnesota's love of hockey was on display in Duluth on Saturday.

While only a few Minnesota high school hockey teams took the ice during the 10th annual Hockey Day Minnesota, support for dozens of hockey teams could be seen everywhere in the crowd of thousands in Bayfront Festival Park.

Hats, jerseys and sweatshirts sported the names of hockey teams from the youngest levels through the NHL's Minnesota Wild and former Minnesota North Stars. Cloquet, Hermantown and Proctor hockey support was scattered among the Duluth Heights, Glen Avon and Piedmont jerseys. Others wore attire with the simple statement, "218 Hockey," to denote northern Minnesota's area code.

On the boards facing the crowd, a banner declaring "State of Hockey" wafted in the wind.

Pat Heffernan, a member of Hockey Day's local organizing committee, said Hockey Day Minnesota turned out well. Organizers estimated that about 5,500 people attended the day's festivities. Heffernan said a great community effort went into organizing the event, and he hopes the community can continue to come together for future events in Duluth.

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"Incredible day, just a total festival of hockey and outdoor fun on what we're calling our ice rink of dreams. Just fantastic," he said. "It was really surreal to see all the people show up, all the fans come in and the players. Nothing quite like seeing all those players come right up the middle of our Bayfront Park through the archway. It was really amazing, I hope it's a day that Duluth can always remember."

The temperature hovered around the freezing mark, providing a warm day for spectators to be outside all day, but giving the ice some trouble.

"I'd say 98 percent of the rink held up very well, and that 2 percent got pretty mushy, but we had a crew out there addressing it as best we could," Heffernan said. "Overall, it was warmer than we expected or would have liked, but I think we certainly did real well with it."

As Denfeld hockey players took the ice for the first game, a large maroon-and-gold Denfeld flag waved above the spectators' heads in the student section.

Duluth East seniors Lexi Lanigan and Gates LeSavage were warming themselves at one of the plentiful fire rings at the rink. They were excited to see the Hockey Day festivities and came at the start of the day because they wanted to cheer on the Denfeld team before their high school team took the ice later in the day. Noting that the student sections for Denfeld and East were sitting next to each other in the stands, Lanigan said it was great to see everyone turn out for the games.

LeSavage said she didn't know much about Hockey Day before it came to Duluth this year.

"I wasn't expecting this," she said.

Standing with them at the fire pit, Matt Paulson, a sophomore on East's junior varsity hockey team, pointed out that having Hockey Day in Duluth this year is a rare moment that may not happen again for a number of years. He was surprised by how many teams participated in the daylong event. He said he knew it was a big deal and had watched it on TV in years prior, but he didn't know it was as impressive an event as it was.

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They don't get to play a lot of hockey games outdoors - and when they do, it gives them the same feeling they had as little kids playing hockey outdoors, said East junior Nick Garden.

Denfeld juniors Kate Beaudin, Audrey Tusken and Kassie Hill stopped to take photos of themselves with their friends with the backdrop of the Aerial Lift Bridge after sitting in the student section during the game. The three Denfeld hockey fans attended the games because they like the atmosphere and know the players, plus hockey is fast-paced and fun to watch.

They were excited when they heard that Hockey Day would be taking place in Duluth this year, Hill said, and Tusken added that it was especially thrilling that their high school's team would be among the teams playing.

"Hockey Day is kinda like a holiday in Minnesota, so being down here is great," Hill said.

Laughing in a group together, hockey teammates and friends Evelyn Smith, 12; Maureen Dwyer, 13; Elaina Benson, 12; and Kaelin Cochran, 11, were sharing a snack while taking a break from watching the Denfeld game.

The four of them were inspired about Hockey Day taking place in Duluth because their Duluth Icebreakers hockey team got a chance to play on the rink before Saturday's event. They played on the Hockey Day rink at night while it was snowing - a pretty scene to play hockey in, Benson said. They go to the outdoor Glen Avon rink sometimes because it's more fun to play hockey outdoors rather than indoors, she said.

Saturday was a nice day to watch hockey in Bayfront, too, she added.

"It's cool to see it down here because you get the beautiful bridge out here," she said.

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Benson and Cochran were also excited to see their older brothers play for the Duluth East team during Hockey Day. Their brothers playing hockey interested them in also trying out the sport, they said.

Dwyer said she decided to try hockey and had so much fun she wanted to stick with it. Smith explains her reasoning, "My family grew up in Edina (Minn.), so they all got into the hockey thing."

It's a sport they want to play for the rest of their life. In addition to making lifelong connections, hockey has taught them a lot of lessons: being a member of a team, getting along with people and "basically, life," Dwyer said.

Related Topics: HOCKEY
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