HOCKEY DAY MINNESOTA

Micah Gernander's introduction to high school hockey in Minnesota was a doozy.

Despite being raised out east, Gernander knew all about the Greenway program his dad starred for and his grandpa coached, including the Raiders' fervent rivalry with neighboring Grand Rapids. So when Gernander's family moved to the Iron Range last summer, he took notice of Greenway's opening opponent for the 2018-19 season.

The Raiders went into a jam-packed IRA Civic Center on Nov. 24 and defeated Grand Rapids 4-1 in front of a few thousand rowdy fans.

Gernander was far removed from the club hockey he'd played in Connecticut, where his father, Ken Gernander, had been a fixture for the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League.

"I had never played in front of a crowd like that," said Micah, a junior forward. "It was the coolest hockey experience I've ever had."

As if that Saturday night collision didn't fully capture the passion that engulfs this sport in close-knit Coleraine, Micah got a reminder the next morning.

"You go to church on Sunday and you have someone looking over the pew saying, 'Hey, good job last night!' " said Ken, who spent 20 seasons - eight as a player, two as an assistant coach and 10 as head coach - with the Wolf Pack, a minor-league affiliate of the New York Rangers.

When Ken was relieved of his coaching duties by Hartford in May 2017, he started plotting an eventual return to this region, where he was a standout forward on the ice under the watchful eye of his dad, Bob Gernander. Ken helped a dominant 1986-87 Greenway squad finish third at the one-class state tournament.

Ken, who went on to play four seasons at the University of Minnesota, was a Mr. Hockey finalist in 1987. The winner that year? Greenway teammate and defenseman Kris Miller. Kris' son, Christian Miller, also is a junior for the present-day Raiders.

As is Mitchell Vekich, whose dad, Derek Vekich, similarly graduated from Greenway in 1987, where he was a center.

All three dads say they steer clear of rehashing their glory days around the teenagers, glorious as they may have been.

Greenway streaked to a 23-2-1 mark in 1986-87. Playoff wins over Chisholm, Hibbing and Grand Rapids sent the Raiders to the St. Paul Civic Center, where they steamrolled Edina 8-3 in the quarterfinals. A 4-2 loss to eventual champ Bloomington Kennedy preceded a 4-3 victory over Warroad in the third-place game.

That club featured several future NCAA Division I players, who were meshed together by Bob Gernander, the Hall of Fame coach who remains a popular figure at Northland rinks.

But, Derek said, high school hockey already is enough of a pressure-cooker. No need to fan the flames with tales of days gone by.

"We were all fortunate to end up on one of the best teams to ever come out of the Range," Derek said.

The one-time teammates are thrilled their sons get to have many of the same opportunities they did. When it's hopping, few barns are as vibrant as Hodgins-Berardo Arena. They don't call it the "snake pit" for nothing, with its raucous supporters and the goal judges suspended above the ice.

History oozes from the old building, which has undergone a renaissance of sorts as Greenway reclaims its winning ways. The Raiders have won 22, 19 and 20 games the previous three seasons.

"We've started to see the arena fill up again," Derek said.

A year after surging to their second straight Section 7A final, where they nearly ended Hermantown's reign before dropping a double-overtime heartbreaker, the snake-bitten Raiders have been stuck in neutral this winter. A rash of injuries and narrow losses has them at 6-12 entering Saturday's Hockey Day tilt with Bemidji.

The unexpected struggles, perhaps, ratchet up the youngsters' respect for what their fathers accomplished while competing against vastly larger schools.

"It's really impressive," Mitchell said. "You think about that now and it'd be like us going against Minnetonka or Edina."

Mitchell nonetheless joked that he, Christian and Micah are a superior prep trio than Derek, Kris and Ken.

"We'd beat them and it wouldn't even be close," he quipped.

Christian hedged, saying it's a different game but also that he didn't "want to hurt their feelings."

Kris often is told that Christian, also a blueliner - albeit a St. Cloud State commit, whereas Kris was a Minnesota Duluth Bulldog - skates and plays just like he did. One glaring difference? Size. Christian is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds.

"He's a lot bigger than I ever was in high school," Kris said. "He's not as tough, though."

That their kids are paving their own path in a program that means so much to them is even more special considering the Raiders were close to defunct as recently as a decade ago.

'We almost lost it'

Former coach Jim "Bird" Lawson, whose son, Donte, is a high-scoring senior for the Raiders, has talked about his first season guiding Greenway in 2009-10. He only had 11 players, some of whom initially showed up wearing shin pads on the outsides of their socks. It hadn't been that long since the Raiders were playing up in Class AA and, buoyed by stars like Gino Guyer and Andy Sertich, finishing third at state in 2001.

Lawson and Pat Guyer, Gino's dad and another ex-coach, went door-to-door drumming up participants.

"If it wasn't for Jim Lawson and Pat Guyer, this program would not be here," Kris said. "We're lucky because we almost lost it. They were going to join with Grand Rapids."

Derek has coached just about every level at Greenway, from mites to high school. During the lean times, the chief concern was staunching the flow of talent to nearby schools.

"We were losing so many kids to neighboring programs, and for a small school that was devastating," Derek said.

Their families' circuitous routes notwithstanding, Derek had a hunch Mitchell, Christian and Micah would one day end up as teammates. As soon as Kris moved back to the area following the conclusion of his professional career, the two of them "started working on Kenny quite a bit." Come back home, they implored him.

And here they all are, sitting in the stands watching their children pick up where they left off, driving this blue-collar club back to respectability and beyond.

"It's an honor to help rebuild this program and get it back to where it should be," Christian said.

13th HOCKEY DAY MINNESOTA

When: Saturday

Where: Lake Bemidji

Brrrmidji: Saturday's forecast calls for a high temp of minus-2

Schedule:

8 a.m. - Coverage begins on Fox Sports North

9:30 a.m. - Andover vs. Minnetonka (boys)

1 p.m. - Minnesota State-Mankato vs. Bemidji State (women)

4 p.m. - Ohio State at Minnesota Duluth (women), Amsoil Arena*

4:30 p.m. - Greenway vs. Bemidji (boys)

6:15 p.m. - Western Michigan at St. Cloud State (men), Herb Brooks Center, St. Cloud*

8 p.m. - Columbus Blue Jackets at Minnesota Wild, Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul

* FSN-Plus