When one thinks of summer, hockey does not quickly come to mind. But that's far from the truth for those in Edina, a Minneapolis suburb of just over 40,000 that's become the epicenter of hockey during the summer months as big-name pros, budding AHLers and college stars with NHL aspirations hit the ice as part of Da Beauty League.
Now in its second year, DBL is the summer home of a host of NHLers like Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei, as well as Zach Parise, Dustin Byfuglien and Kyle Okposo. The league is comprised of six teams, with each game being four-on-four during two, 23-minute running time periods.
While it's not quite the action that's on display in the NHL from October through June, the players admitted there's certainly a level of competitiveness. After all, these are NHLers who do not like to lose, even if its August.
"It always kind of starts out light hearted, the first five or six minutes, but as soon as someone gets that first goal, it kind of ramps up," McDonagh told NYRangers.com in an interview at Braemar Arena in Edina where DBL hosts its games Monday and Wednesday nights. "You show up here to play. We're all competitive, and as soon as that puck drops, that competitive spirit kind of takes over. You want to make sure you're trying to do what you can to help your team win."
After a successful first year, the league added more games to the schedule leading up to the postseason, which has the top-four squads facing each other later this month.
"It does," Skjei said when asked if things start to get tighter as teams begin their playoff pushes. "The next couple of weeks it will for sure. It's not shinny hockey but it gets pretty competitive."
The roster is a who's who of Minnesota stars, both established and emerging. In the past, players would train together during the summer months before heading to their respective training camps. The DBL has now allowed those who train together to also get in game action, something McDonagh said cannot be replicated by free skates.
"Just being able to handle the puck like that in high speed situations, tight situations. Being able to come down on a one-on-one rush against an NHL-caliber defenseman, you don't replace those opportunities in the summer," he said. "Myself, as a defenseman, taking a lot of rushes, odd-man rushes against some high-skilled players - it's fun to have that and keep those reads up in the summer so when training camp comes, it's not as foreign."
Video: Rangers participate in Da Beauty League
The opportunity for less established players looking to break through to the next level to play with and against those already in the NHL is a great learning opportunity for Rangers prospects Vinni Lettieri and Steven Fogarty.
"I don't know if I can speak for everyone, but I certainly do," Forgarty said when asked if this is something he uses to prepare himself for camp. "This is where you match up against guys who have played on All Star teams and in the Olympics. It's definitely a measuring stick. Every night is a challenge, but it definitely gets you in the right mindset going forward."
Lettieri said DBL is now attracting players from outside the area to spend the summer training in Minnesota.
"It's not only guys from Minnesota," said Lettieri, who signed with the Rangers last spring out of the University of Minnesota. "A ton of guys come even if they don't live here in the summer. They just rent a place because they know how good the skates are over here, especially like this, Da Beauty League."
The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, with hundreds cramming in to the Edina rink on a weekly basis. That support from the fans brings players coming back week after week.
"The support from the state of Minnesota for hockey is unbelievable," Skjei said. "You get tons of kids at the games with their parents. I was for sure one of those kids back in the day. It makes it a lot of fun. It's great to see all the support."
Better yet, proceeds from ticket (kids are free) and merchandise sales go to the United Heroes League and the Shine a Ligh7 Foundation, putting a good cause behind a good time.
"If you have your family showing up, friends and family coming to watch you play, you know that the ticket prices aren't just something for someone to profit," McDonagh said. "It's going to charity; it's going to a great cause. That makes it all the better to want to play every night."
If all those positives aren't enough, the league also offers the opportunity for Minnesota's top players to once again share a locker room or ice with friends they've had since high school. While the state itself is massive, the community is tight, and that chance is not wasted on those who take part in the league.
"It's a lot of fun, especially because you get to play with guys you play against during the year," Skjei said. "Some old friends you played with in high school, college or juniors. Basically everyone knows everyone, which is a really cool thing. Everyone lives within a 20-mile radius too, so it's pretty crazy to think of all the hockey talent that surrounds this area."
For Fogarty, a native from Edina who won a state championship in 2010 with the high school, it's truly an opportunity to play back at home.
"I played hundreds of games in here, practiced thousands of times," he said. "To come back here is always special. We have a lot of fans in the stands and that brings back good memories."
McDonagh said it's special to see younger players play in DBL because the next great star from the State of Minnesota could be a current Beauty.
"You can see guys growing up and be that next guy to kind of carry the torch of pro hockey in the metro area in Minnesota," he said. "There's a lot of pride among the guys who are from here and who played around in different colleges around here and are now playing professionally. It's fun to be able to come back and play with each other, but also give back for a good cause."
Photos courtesy of Da Beauty League