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Absent supporter still inspires Hermantown hockey team

Ask any member of the Hermantown hockey team about the late Tim Ellingson, and the response -- a wide, warm smile -- is unanimous. Ask those same players who Ellingson was, and the responses are as unpredictable as a 10-day Northland forecast. El...

Hockey team
Members of the Hermantown hockey team stop to study photos and memorabilia beneath a portrait of coach and mentor Tim Ellingson during visitation at the Vineyard Church on Thursday morning, Jan. 9, 2014. About 200 people from throughout the Northland hockey community attended Ellingson's visitation and funeral. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Ask any member of the Hermantown hockey team about the late Tim Ellingson, and the response -- a wide, warm smile -- is unanimous.

Ask those same players who Ellingson was, and the responses are as unpredictable as a 10-day Northland forecast.

Ellingson was a coach, they say, and a teacher, a mentor and a Zamboni driver, a father figure and a friend.

And he was unequivocally the Hawks' biggest supporter.

"He did everything for the program," Hermantown senior Scott Wasbotten said after a state-tournament practice Thursday at Augsburg College. "He was always at the rink, he always kept the rinks in good condition and he taught every kid on our team something about hockey."

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"Timmy was just a great guy," Hawks coach Bruce Plante said. "He was a rink rat at heart and so he was out there skating all the time. He loved hockey, and I think he helped a lot of our kids learn to love hockey."

Ellingson died in early January at the age of 68. He was a Hermantown fanatic and a former assistant to Plante who devoted a tremendous amount of time in his later years to maintaining the ice at the Hermantown arena and surrounding facilities. Simply put, he was always around, always willing to offer a hand or a word of encouragement.

"He'd give us clean ice all the time -- he didn't have to be there, he just wanted to be there," senior Kori Ochs said. "Sometimes he'd have hot chocolate ready for us or he'd order pizza for us. Our parents didn't really have to worry about us when we were there because he was like a father to us. He took care of us."

The little program Ellingson played such a pivotal role in building is all grown up. The Hawks are in their fifth consecutive state tournament. And just as they've done every game since his death, players will take the ice today in the Class A semifinals at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center trying to win one for Tim.

That point is hammered home by the helmet decal each player wears. The round white stickers read, in navy blue and gold lettering, "Tim."

"We think about him before every game," Ochs said. "We say, 'This one's for Tim, have to do it for Tim.' We know he's watching us, helping us out. We know he's always there for us and always will be."

When Nate Pionk was introduced before Wednesday's quarterfinal against Luverne, rather than the customary TV greeting to mom and dad, the junior dedicated that day's game to Ellingson.

"Because that's who we've been playing for this whole season," Pionk said.

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Ellingson grew up in Duluth and was a special education teacher at a handful of schools around the area. An avid sports fan, hockey was the one he was most passionate about, whether he was coaching, watching or prepping ice. Everyone affiliated with the Hermantown program knew Ellingson, often from the time they first laced up skates until they played their final varsity game.

Thursday, the Hawks recalled a guy who never balked at keeping the lights on or the doors unlocked well into the night so players could get some extra skating in or play a pick-up game.

Frequently, Ellingson was needed to even out sides. He always obliged.

"He was a hockey coach and a hockey guy at heart," Plante said.

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