-- While hockey fans in the United States were watching NBC's coverage of Hockey Day Across America today, fans in Minnesota were experiencing it first hand.
Just a long slap shot away from Xcel Energy Center, located in the heart of downtown St. Paul, Landmark Plaza was host to NBC's pregame coverage as well as a whole host of activities, all hockey-centric.
The festivities had already begun when Liam McHugh, Mike Milbury
and Pierre McGuire went on the air at 11 a.m. local time. USA Hockey's first youth American Development Model clinic got under way from the Wells Fargo Winterskate at 10 a.m., a refrigerated outdoor rink set in the middle of the park, surrounded by streets and skyscrapers.
The kids skating behind the NBC crew were mostly under 10 years old, with many in the 7-8-year-old range. Coaches on the ice were from USA Hockey, volunteering their time in an effort to spread the mission of the ADM, a program designed by USA Hockey to give kids more touches, more opportunities to play and to reduce costs for parents.
"Activities for all sports, not just hockey, are rising," said Terry Evavold of Sartell, Minn., the director of the ADM for Minnesota Hockey. "So we have to find a way to reduce those costs and get more kids playing."
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Dan Nicklay, of Rosemount, Minn., helps coach his son Jimmy's team for the Rosemount Hockey Association. Rosemount High School head coach Scott Macho informed the association's youth coaches about today's opportunity to skate outdoors with coaches from USA Hockey.
Today's event also carried extra importance because of Minesota's especially mild winter weather. Nicklay said his team was scheduled to practice on outdoor ice as many as two times per week this winter, but because of the warmth, was only able to have five practices outside.
That put extra value on the all-important teaching aspect of the events at the Winterskate. And while Nicklay watched his son, 6, skate from the side, he was able to take his own mental notes about becoming a better coach himself.
"I'm watching the drills they do," Nicklay said. "It's a good learning opportunity for the coaches in the association. Get some good ideas, get some drills. We can take this back and use it."
Dan said Jimmy has played organized hockey for three years but has had skates on since he was a 18 months old. And while playing hockey with his friends was fun, dad said the part he was looking forward to most came when the skates were off.
"He loves seeing Goldy," Nicklay said, referring to the University of Minnesota's mascot, who made an appearance today along with the four other mascots from Minnesota's Division I college programs. "We have season tickets to the Gopher games and he loves giving Goldy a high five and a hug."
But today's event wasn't just for the kids.
Robbie Sullivan, her husband and her son Neal have made a weekend of it in the Twin Cities. For Christmas, the Sullivans, all lifelong Gopher hockey fans, gave Neal, a student at Bemidji State University, tickets to the BSU-Minnesota series, which culminated last night across town at Mariucci Arena. They also got him tickets to today's Wild-Bruins game and to the WCHA Final Five in mid-March.
Hockey for them is not just a day-long event but a way of life. For the Sullivans, from the tiny town of Nashwauk in northern Minnesota, it's a three-hour trek to the Twin Cities for every event. And when they're not in the arena, they watch every game on television. Neal is able to get CBC in Bemidji, meaning hockey is on almost every night. The weekly phone calls home, Robbie said, mostly involve hockey -- the highlights, who scored, who's winning, who's losing.
"It's always around something with hockey," Sullivan said. "It's a big part of our lives, it really is."
The Sullivans were waiting in the hotel in St. Paul when they saw a crowd of people at Landmark Plaza. Neal went on Twitter to find out what was going on, and the family decided to check it out. Neal, an avid CBC viewer, sought out McGuire, one of his favorite television personalities. Robbie was waiting for the North Stars alumni to begin their autograph signing. The family owns the autograph of every Golden Gopher to win the Hobey Baker, except Neal Broten
. That was going to change today.
"This brings back memories for me, bringing my son to the rink for practice, sitting there for a couple of hours, skating on the outdoor rink with him," Sullivan said. "The whole experience… we just try to take in as much as we can."
According to Evavold, that's the goal of USA Hockey on days like Sunday.
"We always talk about bringing the kids back to the pond," he said. "Creating fun. That's what the experience is all about."