The cities of Woodbury and Hermantown, Minnesota are about 150 miles apart. But for the young hockey players—and parents—who participated in the Minnesota State PeeWee AA level championship game in March, the two communities could just as well be neighbors.
After making annual trips north to play the Hermantown teams several years running, many of the Woodbury kids and parents of each team have become friends with the Hermantowners. Getting to the 2018 state PeeWee championship game on March 18 in Duluth was already special, but facing the team with the most “friends of Woodbury” made it more memorable, says Tony Fisher, whose son Jake played on the Woodbury team. (Fisher also has a son, Drew, who is a former participant of the program, and a daughter, Lauren, in the program). The game, which Woodbury won 4-2 to take the title, “was a really special opportunity for both teams,” Tony Fisher says.
Jake Fisher, age 13, who played center and left wing on the state champion team, agrees that playing a familiar opponent, Hermantown, made it even more fun. Playing for the state title “was nerve-racking at first, but then super-fun.”
Hockey is a competitive sport and everybody wants to win, but it’s not winning that parents and kids cite as the best, most lasting aspect of kids’ hockey. It’s the bonding experience that makes people part of the “hockey family,” they say. A lot of shared memories are made over the course of a season that begins in September with team tryouts and can run into March, depending on how far teams go in tournament play.
In Woodbury, the game is more popular than ever, with 20 percent growth in participation last season. During the 2017-2018 season, 788 kids ages 5 through 17 participated in youth hockey, including 533 boys and 184 girls.
Youth hockey is a structured program, with carefully scheduled tryouts, practices and games and a significant time commitment for the kids, the coaches who volunteer their time and expertise, and the parents who make sure they get to and from the rink. Hockey is unique in that regard, says AA PeeWee coach Greg Miller, whose son, Ben, played for the championship team. “Unlike other sports where you just show up at the field, the kids and parents show up an hour or half-hour before the game or practice, and hang around after. So it becomes a pretty close group throughout the winter,” says Miller, who played hockey at Tartan High School and St. Mary’s College in Winona.
“There’s a lot of carpooling,” Tony Fisher notes. ”There are so many parents, friends and family members who are willing to chip in, and pick up or drop off. Without that, we’d never be able to make it work on our own. And hockey becomes your entire social circle. There are so many good parents, good parents; it’s a lot of fun to spend time with people you really enjoy.”
John Erickson, who got involved 27 years ago to coach his three (now-adult) sons, continues to volunteer many hours of his time as head coach of the AA PeeWee team. Over the years, he’s coached at almost every level of youth hockey—Mites, Squirts, PeeWees and Bantams. Erickson developed his love for the game growing up in Duluth, playing for perennial high school powerhouse Duluth Cathedral, and playing college hockey at Gustavus Adolphus. Being around kids and helping young athletes develop their skills is what keeps him involved, years after his sons left the program.
The Squirt and PeeWee years of age 9 through 12 are “prime time for skill development. Kids that age can really absorb and learn how to play the game. They are sponges at that age,” Erickson says. “PeeWees are a really fun age group. They are still little boys and have a lot of energy; and they’re not spitting and swearing, doing stuff like that,” he adds with a laugh.
Jake Fisher wasn’t surprised by the team’s strong finish last March. “Going into the season, I knew almost everybody on the team and thought we had a chance. It was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Jake, who will play Bantam hockey this season.
Like an increasing number of Minnesota kids, Jake is playing hockey year-round. He spent the summer skating and attending the Minnesota Advancement Program Camp at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, three to five days a week, and playing in a summer league. Of course, he wants to play high school hockey eventually, with the ultimate goal of playing Division I college hockey. “I just want to make it as far as I can.”
Hockey is one of the most structured, heavily scheduled activities 21st-century kids can pursue. But Tony Fisher says it’s the unstructured time spent on outdoor rinks and frozen ponds, playing “shinny” with friends, practicing stick handling moves and generally having fun, that really drives kids’ passion for the sport. “They love being out there.”