Prep boys hockey: Hermantown's Nate Pionk is All-Area Player of the Year

As the high school boys hockey season wore on and Hermantown made a habit of burying opponents beneath an avalanche of goals, the only real drama most nights was who would emerge from the locker room wearing the Hawks' pink Minnie Mouse player-of...

Hermantown’s Nate Pionk stands in his home arena after practice in January. He is the News Tribune’s boys hockey All-Area Player of the Year. (File / News Tribune)

As the high school boys hockey season wore on and Hermantown made a habit of burying opponents beneath an avalanche of goals, the only real drama most nights was who would emerge from the locker room wearing the Hawks’ pink Minnie Mouse player-of-the-game helmet.
The tradition started at mid­season, and the hope all along was to get coach Bruce Plante to participate.
“If we could have won that last game,” senior center Nate Pionk said, “it was definitely going to him.”
Pionk, of course, was referring to Hermantown’s 5-4 overtime loss to East Grand Forks in the Class A state championship game. A win there, and suddenly the program’s incomprehensible run of title-game heartbreak is a footnote.
But c’mon, Plante in a pink bicycle helmet in a room full of reporters and cameras?
“I would have worn it, for sure, especially if Nate wanted to present it to me,” the coach said. “That would have been perfect. I would have went into the press conference with that helmet on.
“That’s hilarious. Yeah, that’s funny. And that’s Nate right there.”
His reputation among teammates and coaches as an easygoing, fun-loving quipster notwithstanding, Pionk can play a little hockey, too. He totaled 35 goals and 37 assists for the 27-win Hawks, who spent most of the season ranked atop Class A.
The 2015 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year finished his prep career with 70 goals and 79 assists, good for sixth place - same as his jersey number - on Hermantown’s all-time scoring list. Fittingly, Pionk’s linemate and buddy, Ryan Kero, ranks seventh with 59 goals and 80 assists. Kero, of course, wore No. 7.
Those two were the headliners for an explosive Hawks offense, which produced fireworks all season before East Grand Forks doused the display March 7 in St. Paul. Hermantown’s first loss of the year to a small-school opponent also marked a sixth title-game defeat in six years.
Three weeks later, the letdown still stings Pionk, who recalled his team’s desperate rally - last-minute goals from Wyatt Aamodt and Eric Gotz to force OT - with high-definition clarity.
“I remember a lot of those details very closely because it haunts me every now and then,” he said.
Pionk didn’t wallow long. He’s playing with the Minot Minotauros of the North American Hockey League and is enrolled at Bishop Ryan, a small Catholic school in Minot, N.D. He likely could have taken classes online, but Pionk, who usually can be found wearing a cross around his neck along with a medallion of Pope John Paul, chose to follow in his brother Neal’s footsteps.
Neal, a defenseman who has signed to play at Minnesota Duluth, attended Bishop Heelan while playing for Sioux City in the United States Hockey League.
“It’s nice to stay up-to-date on your religion,” Pionk said. “It’s a big part of my family’s life.”
Pionk would like to follow another path navigated by his older sibling - the one that leads to a Division I scholarship. For all of Pionk’s gifts as a playmaker, he admits to being undersized at a lean 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds. And he says he needs to become a faster skater, though to the casual observer his ability to see plays develop ahead of time would appear to mitigate any speed shortcomings.
“With size comes speed, too, is what I’ve always been told,” Pionk said.
Plante called Pionk a next-level player with a high hockey IQ who reminds the coach of former Hawk Drew LeBlanc, who won the 2013 Hobey Baker Memorial Award as a St. Cloud State senior.
“His anticipation skills are awesome, and that speeds up his game a lot,” Plante said.
Pionk has looked plenty fast the past two years. Seven times this season he produced multi-goal games, including a blistering five in Hermantown’s 10-2 rout of Grand Rapids in January. He scored three more in the state tournament quarterfinals against Spring Lake Park as the Hawks stretched their unbeaten streak to 24 games (it would reach 25). Kero did the same as the duo combined for 12 points in an 8-0 blowout.
Pionk went out of his way to credit cohorts like Kero, Cole Koepke and 2014 graduate Scott Wasbotten, along with Plante, for all the success that’s come his way.
“It’s not just me, for sure,” he said. “It’s definitely the people I was playing with that helped me and made it easier on all of us.”
That share-the-glory mindset is one reason Plante will miss Pionk when the Hawks return in 2015-16.
“We really will miss him because he was such a great player for us,” Plante said. “We’re going to miss that, but more importantly we’re going to miss his character in the locker room and his fun-loving attitude, always making things fun for everybody.”

GRAPHIC: News Tribune All-Area Boys Hockey Team

News Tribune boys hockey Players of the Year

Year    Player    School

2015    Nate Pionk    Hermantown
2014    Avery Peterson    Grand Rapids
2013    Meirs Moore    Duluth East
2012    Jake Randolph    Duluth East
2011    Garrett Skrbich    Hermantown
2010    Adam Krause    Hermantown
2009    Max Tardy    Duluth East
2008    Jake Youso    International Falls
2007    Patrick White    Grand Rapids
2006    Tyler Johnson    Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
2005    Matt Niskanen    Mountain Iron-Buhl
2004    Alex Goligoski    Grand Rapids
2003    Ben Gordon    International Falls
2002    Josh Johnson    Cloquet-Esko-Carlton
2001    Gino Guyer    Greenway
2000    Aaron Slattengren    Proctor
1999    Jon Francisco    Hermantown
1998    Adam Coole    Duluth East
1997    Dylan Mills    Duluth East
1996    Dave Spehar    Duluth East
1995    Dave Spehar    Duluth East
1994    Joe Golcz    Duluth Denfeld

What To Read Next
Get Local