EDINA, Minn. -- The start of the NHL season is more than two months away, but it felt like it was right around the corner at Braemar Arena on Thursday.
Fans filled the rink for an evening of three 4-on-4 games in the inaugural season of Da Beauty League. Even with some players unavailable because of other commitments, the league's six teams featured 75 players from 16 NHL organizations, 14 minor league teams and seven NCAA teams. All of them either are from Minnesota or spend their summers there.
"It's funny to think it took this long to get something like this going with the amount of players that come back here," said New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, a St. Paul, Minn., native who scored two goals to help Team Tradition rally for a 6-5 shootout win against RBC Wealth Management. "With the pros and colleges in the area and just the number of players who train here, it's been a great thing. I think all of us players didn't realize how big it was going to be and how many kids are having a blast just watching us."
Da Beauty League plays three games (two halves of 25 running minutes) a night on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The championship game is Aug. 10.
The list of NHL players who have participated since play began July 12 includes McDonagh, Derek Stepan (New York Rangers), Brady Skjei (New York Rangers), Matt Niskanen (Washington Capitals), David Backes (Boston Bruins), Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild), Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg Jets), James van Riemsdyk (Toronto Maple Leafs), Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs), Alex Goligoski (Arizona Coyotes), Paul Martin (San Jose Sharks), Thomas Vanek (Detroit Red Wings), Brock Nelson (New York Islanders), Anders Lee (New York Islanders), Nick Leddy (New York Islanders), Matt Carle (Nashville Predators) and Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers). Of that group, only Carle, Vanek and van Riemsdyk aren't Minnesota natives. Vanek played college hockey at the University of Minnesota and the past two seasons with the Wild.
"You've got a lot of Minnesota guys that come back every summer, and hockey is a very tight-knit group of guys in general," said Leddy, who is from Eden Prairie, Minn. "It's fun coming back and getting with a lot of old buddies that you may not have played with for a long time or haven't seen the whole season or summer."
Player agents Chris McAlpine and Ben Hankinson of Octagon Hockey were instrumental in helping form Da Beauty League, along with co-founders Terry Moore, Tony Michel and Josh Schaub. Most NHL players begin informal skates in mid-August to get ready for training camp. With so many players in the area throughout the summer, it made sense to try to do something earlier. Each of the six teams is sponsored by a local business.
"We kind of threw it around a little bit and then just put some feelers out with some of the guys, and guys were like, 'Yeah, that would be kind of cool,'" McAlpine said. "Then we started putting it together and deciding if we were going to go with it or not and decided to go full throttle, and it's just been great."
The league's name demonstrates the lighthearted atmosphere it is trying to promote.
"We kind of went off how players [say], 'He's a beauty,'" McAlpine said. "That's how we came up with and ran with it."
Da Beauty League's champion will receive the John Scott Cup, named for the most valuable player of the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Nashville. Scott, a Hankinson client, is listed on the league's website as its "Very Part-Time Honorary Commissioner." Da Beauty League's logo is a silhouette of Scott reaching down to touch the ice while celebrating one of his All-Star Game goals.
"He's definitely a beauty coming off an NHL All-Star MVP and a whirlwind year," McAlpine said of Scott.
Admission is $5 for the night with season passes available for $25. Children shorter than the cutout picture of 6-foot-5 Byfuglien in the arena lobby get in free, so it's an affordable setting for a young fan to watch some NHL stars and others on the rise.
All proceeds go to charity, including the United Heroes League (formerly Defending the Blue Line), which helps provide hockey equipment, game tickets, cash grants and funding for summer camps to military families in the U.S. and Canada.
"You look at the players and there's a lot of NHL guys, established players," said Skjei, who will be looking to earn a regular spot on the Rangers defense this season. "The competition is good and it goes to a good cause too."
No one seems to take the competition too seriously. That was evident Thursday when goaltender Adam Wilcox, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect playing for the Aspire Beverages team, joined the play in the offensive zone in the final seconds of an 8-4 loss to the SportsDigita team.
"I missed the first two weeks and I heard from my other buddies that were playing that it was packed," said van Riemsdyk, who scored three goals for SportsDigita. "I came here for the first time to play on Tuesday and there were lots of people here, so it makes it fun."
After each game, young fans wait for players to sign autographs by the Zamboni entrance. Bjugstad, a Minneapolis native who had 15 goals and 19 assists in 67 games last season with the Panthers, spent more than 15 minutes signing every shirt and hat handed to him.
"It's the middle of the summer and you see all these kids out here, so you've got to put in the time," Bjugstad said. "There's a reason why we're playing. We looked up to players just like this when we were kids, so you've got to take the time and hang out with the kids and have some fun with them."