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Rick Weegman column: Competition on outdoor ice softens hearts

After more than a quarter century in the newspaper business, it's often difficult to raise my eyebrows about anything that happens in the sporting world.Another athlete caught doping? That's old news.Another university went on probation for recru...

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Nick Lanigan (11) of Duluth East controls the puck near Brock Draeger (17) of Lakeville North during Hockey Day Minnesota at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth. Lakeville North defeated East 3-2. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

After more than a quarter century in the newspaper business, it’s often difficult to raise my eyebrows about anything that happens in the sporting world.
Another athlete caught doping? That’s old news.
Another university went on probation for recruiting violations? Seen it many times before.
A pro athlete is in trouble for hitting his girlfriend? Happens way too often.
So when Hockey Day Minnesota chose Duluth for its annual stop, excuse me if my initial response was a big yawn.
Been there, done that - in Hermantown and Grand Rapids, I thought.
But Saturday’s Hockey Day at Bayfront Festival Park was close to a seminal moment. Joining the 5,000-plus people in attendance for the outdoor high school boys hockey doubleheader wasn’t exactly a religious experience, but it made a curmudgeonly sports editor look around at the surroundings and crack a smile.
With the Aerial Lift Bridge framing one end of the picturesque scene and the hillside forming the backdrop, it looked like something out of a Tim Cortes painting.
I felt like the Grinch when he stood on the top of Mount Crumpit, ready to toss all the Whos’ presents over the edge to spoil their Christmas, only to learn the true meaning of the holiday.
Players and coaches from both winning and losing teams felt the same way.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Duluth Denfeld senior forward Dylan Skorich, who scored a goal in the Hunters’ 5-2 win over Eveleth-Gilbert in the morning game. “There’s nothing better than playing with teammates on an outdoor rink.”
Skorich, who grew up in Superior, is one of scores of teen hockey players who have grown up watching previous Hockey Days. He said the day, which featured below-freezing temperatures and overcast skies, couldn’t have been more perfect.
“You couldn’t get a better day,” he said. “It’s such a great area for it, overlooking the lake and lift bridge; it’s beautiful. You had to take a moment to take it all in. I will remember this for the rest of my life, for sure.”
Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley, not someone prone to hyperbole, was brimming with pride after the game and praising all those involved with organizing the 10th annual statewide event.
“What a great experience for the kids, the coaches, the community and our feeder program,” Smalley said. “The whole community can be proud of this. I can’t imagine there’s a more beautiful location than where the game was at. At our practice the other day, I looked around and thought, ‘How awesome is this?’ ”
Ice conditions deteriorated somewhat, especially toward the end of Duluth East’s game against defending Class AA champion Lakeville North.
But that didn’t dampen the experience for Duluth players, most of whom grew up playing on outdoor rinks in all kinds of weather and ice conditions.
East senior Ryan Peterson, who scored both of the Greyhounds’ goals in the 3-2 loss to the team that beat them in the 2015 Class AA state tournament final, experienced those conditions growing up and playing in the Lester Park neighborhood.
“It brings back a lot of memories from when we were growing up,” Peterson said. “You don’t get this opportunity ever, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Greyhounds had been a part of two previous Hockey Days, but had yet to play outdoors. They had a scheduled game at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center in 2009 and were forced inside by warm weather in Minnetonka in 2012.
So longtime coach Mike Randolph was quick to tell his players how special the moment was.
“I told the kids how lucky they were to have played in a game like this and to not forget it,” he said.
While the Bayfront rink will be taken down, it might not signal the end of outdoor varsity action in Duluth.
Smalley says he has talked to Randolph about holding an outdoor Duluth Day, while Cloquet-Esko-Carlton coach Dave Esse said last week he hoped to play East one day at a football stadium a la the NHL’s Stadium Series.
Randolph, as grizzled as they come in the hockey world, grinned when told of that idea.
“Anywhere you play an East-Cloquet game, people would come out,” he said. “On a lake or anywhere. So we’re all for it.”
So is a certain crusty sports editor.

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Rick Weegman

Rick Weegman is sports editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at (218) 723-5302 or rweegman@duluthnews.com .

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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 on Saturday. Close to 5,500 people attended the day's games. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

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