The author grew up playing hockey with the Woodbury Area Hockey Club, was a member of the Hill-Murray Pioneers girls hockey team and went on to play collegiate hockey at Providence College in Rhode Island.
It’s no secret that Minnesota is synonymous with hockey: The tundra-like climate breeds perfect skating ponds, little ones are put in skates the minute they can walk and the state high school hockey tournament often reaches a religious fervor rivaling Texas football. While cities such as St. Paul, Rochester and Duluth are the birthplace of hockey lineages that forged the history of Minnesota hockey, the city of Woodbury carries its own weight as a modern model of the passionate community youth hockey drives.
The Woodbury Area Hockey Club started in the late 1960s with a modest roster of skaters who first operated under the Woodbury Royals team name. Fast-forward more than 35 years: The Woodbury Predators youth program averages more than 600 skaters on more than 40 teams—eight of them girls teams—feeding to two sets of local high school varsity and junior varsity programs as well as various private school programs across the Twin Cities. When it comes to starting the sport, there’s no such thing as too young—the club offers a Learn to Skate Program for kids/skaters as young as age 3. It’s a hockey wonderland.
For two neighboring Woodbury families, the Shillings and the Fishers, the Woodbury Hockey Association is a rite of passage. Joe Shillings graduated from Hill-Murray High School and played in the program growing up, and Tony Fisher grew up playing hockey in St. Paul. With that legacy, it’s only natural that Beckett Shillings, age 7, is a mite in the Woodbury program, and Drew (13), Jake (11) and Lauren (9) Fisher have all come through the program.
For these two families and many other families with skaters in the program, youth hockey has transcended a hobby and become a lifestyle. “It is definitely a commitment,” says Tony Fisher. The Fisher children and Beckett play the sport competitively outside of the designated season, participating on an AAA team called the Steel Dogs, specialty clinics and skating schools.
This transition from a six-month sport to a year-round sport is an easy one for many youth hockey players with the number of camps offered in the area. Woodbury High School and East Ridge High School hockey programs have developed a strong relationship with the youth program over the years, each offering their own summer program with involvement from the head coaches. Other camps such as Fusion Training, Acceleration Minnesota and Diane Ness’ ProEdge Power draw skaters from all over the east metro for their expertise in skating instruction and skill development.
Many of these Woodbury area camps run out of Bielenberg Sports Center (BSC), the epicenter of local youth hockey. The facility, which houses two sheets of ice, completed a renovation in 2014 that added a refrigerated outdoor rink, a go-to spot for players looking for some open ice time. While her brothers are practicing inside BSC, Lauren Fisher often can be found on the rink outside. “I just love being on skates,” Lauren says.
This all-encompassing passion for being a rink rat has become a prerequisite for those in the program, and the parents are no exception. Joe Shillings spends his time at the rink as an assistant coach of Beckett’s team and director of the mites and mini-mites programs for ages 8 and under. Tony Fisher has offered fundraising assistance for his son’s teams. Of course, this is all beyond just being regular hockey parents; between the three kids, the Fishers estimate they each spend about an average of 10-15 hours at the rink per week just supporting. “Hockey parents have to be passionate,” Shillings says. “All the time spent at the rink and helping the program really does make this a community.”
Time isn’t the only thing hockey parents spend; the sport has become increasingly expensive. Yearly fees to be a part of a Woodbury Area Hockey Club team add up to anywhere between just under $1,000 for mini-mites and more than $5,000 for Bantam level players. This is all without adding in equipment, which can easily cost $1,000-$2,000 per player depending on the age and quality of equipment. These large totals are the reason the club has put so much energy into fundraising and providing scholarships. In 2015-16, the club raised more than $100,000 through charitable gambling, sponsorships and other fundraising activities. Jennifer Sutch, vice president of fundraising for the hockey club, stresses the importance of these funds that can offset costs. “Fundraising is essential to the success of our program,” Sutch says. “We appreciate all of our sponsors who support our players and the association.”
Beneath the competitive schedule and expensive fees, the sport’s simple nature is the attraction point for many, and is in no way more genuinely displayed than backyard pond hockey. The Fishers are lucky enough to live on a pond, transforming their backyard into a neighborhood hub for friends and relatives. A 60 x 120 foot rink with two nets promises the perfect pick-up game, and outdoor lights and a bonfire pit allow the game to continue long after the sun goes down. “The kids play differently out here,” says Tony Fisher. “The team practices require so much structure. When a kid can go out and just have fun trying out skills, that’s when they really can get better.”
Asking the Fisher boys about their pond hockey time yields responses that echo their father’s. “I feel so happy when I make something happen,” Jake says. For his brother Drew, it’s about getting everyone together. “I love being out there with my friends and having a great time,” he says.
No backyard pond? No problem. When Beckett Shillings isn’t over playing with the Fishers, he’s hitting the ice on the backyard sport court rink the family had installed this past year. “The fact that we can use it year-round was obviously attractive to us,” says Paloma Shillings. “But from the outset we were most excited about flooding it.”
It would be simple to end with this anecdote, the sport court primed for rink flooding as an example of the state of hockey’s wild commitment to the sport. But what makes Woodbury youth hock-ey great—what makes hockey anywhere great—is something much simpler, and frankly, much sweeter. The core of the sport isn’t in the crazed fandom around playoffs, or the buzz that follows the release of new Bauer skates, but in the last light of a Sunday afternoon with friends at the pond, or among parents huddled in the lobby between periods. “The sport creates a level of camaraderie that is unparalleled,” says Joe Shillings. “I felt it when I played, and I still feel it now watching my son play. There’s something about hockey that brings people together.”
Woodbury Area Hockey Club
The Woodbury Area Hockey Club (WAHC) is a nonprofit, volunteer-run youth hockey association serving youths who live in or attend school in Woodbury, Newport and Afton assigned to ISD 833. The club offers programs for ages 3-high school, with boys and girls teams at every level. Most programs run from approximately October through February, with registration opening in late summer.
WAHC also provides the opportunities for beginning skaters to try out the sport and learn basic skills through the Intro to Hockey and Girls Intro to Hockey programs. These programs consist of 12 one-hour sessions, and are offered in the fall and spring. For more information, visit the website here.