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Stadium Series

Minnesota enjoys love affair with hockey

In Gopher State, growing up on outdoor rinks is part of life

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director, Editorial

The best slogans are based in undeniable truths.

That's why the "State of Hockey" tagline used to sell the Minnesota Wild experience has been embraced by hockey fans across the state.

"The State of Hockey slogan really does ring true," said Tom Chorske, who won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995 during an 11-year NHL career and still calls Minnesota home. "It's a mindset that comes over us once winter rolls around. In a way, I think it's a way for us to deal with the long winters here."

As a result, Minnesotans believe the state is the pinnacle of hockey in the United States, possessing the culture of the game manifested throughout Canada, rather than the way it is celebrated in America. 

The state will be on display when the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series comes to TCF Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports).

"It's dang cold and frigid in the winter; playing hockey on outdoor ice and on the lakes and the like is kind of a way of life if you are not ice fishing," said St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, who grew up in Minneapolis. "They've kind of built a culture around [hockey]. It's something that is pretty special. It's just one of those things that continues to gain traction once the Wild came to town and kind of made it their motto, and it took off. The whole state took pride in that sort of coming together over the game of hockey." 

The game undeniably is healthy at every level in Minnesota, from youth hockey to adult rec to professional, including every other stop along that journey. 

Minnesota has produced more than 230 NHL players. Massachusetts, the next-largest producer of American-born NHL talent, is almost 50 players behind. 

Of the top 25 American-born point producers in the League this season, six are from Minnesota: Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler, New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo, Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and Islanders forward Brock Nelson.  

Minnesotans leading the hockey charge in the United States is nothing new. 

The state has been at the vanguard of developing players for as long as people have cared about the sport in America. 

Seven players on the 17-man roster of the United States team that stunned the world by winning gold at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics were from Minnesota, including the famed Christian brothers, Billy and Roger, from Warroad. 

At the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, the Miracle on Ice team featured 12 Minnesota-born players on its history-making 20-player roster. The team was coached by Herb Brooks, a St. Paul native. 

In 1985, the Mr. Hockey Award was introduced in Minnesota, awarded annually to the best high school hockey player in the state. Chorske, who played at Minneapolis' Southwest High School, won the first award and was one of 10 Mr. Hockey winners to reach the NHL in the first 20 years it was given. 

Hockey is the language that dominates the long winter months that keep the Land of 10,000 Lakes in the clutches of a deep freeze from October until March. 

It inducts new recruits each year, usually before beginners even start school. Parents cart sons and daughters to the closest rink to start the process of learning to skate. 

"When I look back and I think of hockey when I was in elementary school, I think of outdoor hockey," said Nate Prosser, a native of Elk River who now plays for the Wild. "That was the biggest thing growing up in Minnesota, in the winter time there are outdoor rinks everywhere. Whatever city you grew up in, it kind of revolves around hockey. Every community had an outdoor rink." 

Faulk, a star defenseman for the Hurricanes, had a childhood filled with memories of hockey virtually at every turn. 

"That's the thing growing up, it's to play hockey," said Faulk, a three-sport star from South St. Paul. "If you can't skate, you are playing it on feet. We call it boot hockey. You just run around on the ice in boots and use a tennis ball or a puck, it doesn't matter. I think that's the thing, everyone likes it growing up. It's like Canada; there's hockey rinks everywhere. 

"I think my city of 20,000 people had maybe 10 outdoor public rinks. Everywhere you go, you have an opportunity to skate. A lot of kids grow up that way, and that is why they enjoy the sport." 

More often than not, exposure to the game leads to a life-long affair with the sport. 

Ryan Carter, a forward with the Wild, has been playing hockey for more than 25 years, including the past decade in the NHL. He won a Stanley cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. 

But, like everyone else, his journey started at an outdoor rink. For Carter, 32, it was the rink built by a group of parents in his neighborhood in White Bear Lake.

Video: Stadium Series logos get installed onto ice.

Despite traveling to the biggest rinks North America has to offer and playing before raucous crowds at the Xcel Energy Center and other NHL venues, Carter still finds himself skating outdoors back home when the opportunity presents itself. He did so recently, during the five-day break for the NHL All-Star Game. 

"For me, that's where I fell in love with the game; outside on the ice," Carter said. 
Developing players who can advance beyond the recreational level is a many-faceted project that involves the whole community and requires countless hours spent at rinks across the state. 

High school hockey in Minnesota is like no place else in the country, taking center stage in the way football does across the American South or basketball does across the rest of the American Heartland. 

The high school football tournament in Texas and the high school basketball tournament in Indiana have mythical appeals to them, but neither draws as many fans as the Minnesota hockey tournament, a four-day celebration of the game. 

"Anyone you talk to about that tournament, they don't really understand it," said Faulk, who grew up watching it each March. "I think you have to be a part of the tournament to understand exactly what it is like. It's not just the games, it's the whole atmosphere. You probably have to see it and be around it to truly understand it and enjoy it." 

During the 2015 tournament, 21,609 fans attended the Class AA semifinals at Xcel Energy Center, a record for the largest crowd to attend a hockey game in Minnesota. 

There also are five Division I programs in Minnesota. Some residents, like Chorske, choose the University of Minnesota. Others turn to University of Minnesota-Duluth, like Faulk. Still others look to Minnesota State University-Mankato, like Backes. St. Cloud State University and Bemidji State University also are options. 

For a select few, life in pro hockey follows. Three dozen Minnesota natives have played at least one game in the NHL this season. Others are toiling in the North American minor leagues or in Europe. But no matter how far a player goes in the sport, the love affair often remains and is passed down to the next generation, assuring Minnesota will remain the State of Hockey. 

"Community is when people gather and have common interest and getting together," Backes said, "and that's really the winter sport of Minnesota. A few play basketball, but the majority are out on the rinks, getting together or going to out-of-town tournaments. It makes community and creates community. It's not necessarily unique to Minnesota, but it is a big part of what happens up there."

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