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Hockey Day Diary

By Devin Lowe, Dan Myers and Phil Ervin

After Hockey Day Minnesota 2017, looks back at the State of Hockey's cherished celebration of the sport it loves most.

Friday Afternoon

Jan. 20, 2017

2:16 p.m. A light fog settles over the St. Croix River as downtown Stillwater begins teeming with pre-Hockey Day activity. Local businesses and local people, most of them decked out in red and black -- Ponies colors -- line both sides of Main Street.

3:10 p.m. Greg Gartner leans back in his chair inside Gartner Studios -- a stationery and party supply company whose offices also house sister company Tylina Foods -- and explains how Hockey Day in Stillwater came to be. Three years ago, the local businessman and RBC Wealth Management-U.S. president and former University of Wisconsin hockey player Tom Sagissor began discussing the idea. The pair enlisted another RBC employee, Tony Novalany, to oversee the event's local organizing committee. Why'd they want it? For the high school players, mostly. But after watching thousands of visitors stream through town every summer, Gartner realized his city could use some winter love.

Last March, Stillwater was granted the 11th annual statewide hockey celebration. "It's unreal," Gartner beams.

3:18 p.m. A man operating a Bobcat dumps woodchips on the slush-laden ground at Lowell Park, laying a path between the entry gate and picturesque, newly-erected outdoor rink that butts up against a mostly-frozen St. Croix. The smell of fresh pine rises off the jimmy-rigged sidewalk and into the chilled air.

4:03 p.m. Members of the Stillwater Fire Department and a mix of local city, county and state law enforcement officers begin carving up the ice for a Police vs. Fire exhibition game.

4:23 p.m. Stillwater Police Department Sgt. Jeff Magler walks out to center ice for the ceremonial puck drop. After 31 years on duty, this is his final day in uniform before retiring.

Friday Night

Jan. 20, 2017

5:21 p.m. The Stillwater area's finest shake hands after an 11-3 Police victory. "It's pretty magical," Washington County Sherriff Deputy John Stringer says of playing outdoors. "It helps us all come together and forget about the stress of the job for a minute."

6:06 p.m. On the first shot of the Minnesota Whitecaps' exhibition against the Korean national team, Suyeon Eom gives the visitors from overseas a 1-0 advantage.

6:45 p.m. After the Whitecaps knot the score at 1, former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher and U.S. National team member Hannah Brandt takes the ensuing faceoff and turns it into a successful breakaway. She'll go on to add another goal en route to a 3-1 win.

7:14 p.m. Former Minnesota and Wisconsin players finish suiting up inside the large, heated wooden sheds serving as locker rooms for the weekend. As the Badgers alumni file their way toward the ice, Minnesota Wild owner, Wisconsin native and honorary coach Craig Leipold tells them, "Let's hit the ice before the bad boys do." In one hand, Leipold is holding an axe with the top of a hockey stick shaft for a handle.

7:30 p.m. The alumni teams circle up at center ice following pregame warmups. Leipold holds up the axe and explains that whichever team wins gets to keep it -- same as the schools' famed Paul Bunyan's Axe football rivalry. Shortly after, current Wild players Ryan Suter (Wisconsin product) and Jordan Schroeder (Minnesota) team up for this game's token faux faceoff.

8:58 p.m. With axe in hand, former Gophers and Wild defenseman Jordan Leopold photobombs Wisconsin's attempts at a team picture following the Minnesota alums' 7-4 victory. One-time Badger and NHL journeyman defenseman Sean Hill returns the favor moments later.

Pat O'Leary, one of several Gophers national champions wearing gold and maroon tonight, leans on his stick and tries to sum up the experience after tallying a hat trick. "It's a beautiful night. I wish we could do it all the time," the Wayzata boys head coach says. "Hockey Day Minnesota's been so amazing, and I think this is another feather [in the cap]."

Technically, it's the first time a Gophers team has raised an axe-shaped trophy since 2003.

"Quite honestly, we were going to let them have it anyways," cracks Wisconsin alum Matt Doman, whose Stillwater boys team will play here Saturday against Eden Prairie. "I don't even know if they knew what [the axe] was for sure. We figured, as a group, that it's just better to spread that wealth and in the spirit of Hockey Day, it'd be good to let them have it."

9:51 p.m. There are only a handful of open seats inside Pub 112 on Main Street as patrons converse over pints. A five-piece cover band does its best Duran Duran impression for "Hungry Like the Wolf," then transitions into Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl." Each member of the quintet save for the drummer is wearing a hockey jersey.

Saturday Morning

Jan. 21, 2017

7:03 a.m. It's pouring in Stillwater, and Hockey Day organizers' worst fears are starting to be realized.

But it won't last. By Thief River Falls and Mahtomedi's 10 a.m. faceoff, it'll have slowed to a light drizzle -- a natural aid for carved-up ice, if anything. And by the game's midway point, it's misting. It won't precipitate more than this the rest of the day, but there will be heavy fog later on. Players and coaches alike, however, will compliment the ice conditions after each game.

8:47 a.m. The skies are clearing, and if you stand on the top row of bleachers at Lowell Park's northern end, you can see Wisconsin to your left, the famous Stillwater Lift Bridge straight ahead, downtown Stillwater and the river bluffs above to the right, and a rink that rivals any outdoor setting in the foreground.

10:21 a.m. Mahtomedi junior Sam Lapadat opens the day's scoring with the first goal of his high school career. About 100 students, most of them dressed in red, white and blue to match the Zephyrs' specialty, retro Washington-Capitals inspired sweaters -- a "USA-out," the students call it -- go nuts behind the southern goal.

10:56 a.m. J. Lindsay stands in the Maynard's parking lot in Excelsior and surveys the 25 teams of all ages slapping the puck around at the North American Pond Hockey Championships. It's a beautiful sight, he says, but something's missing.

The ice.

Warm temperatures have created manifold puddles on Lake Minnetonka, so the tourney organizer has done what any Minnesotan would do -- improvised. Many teams have stuck around and turned the pond hockey event into a boot hockey one. It keeps the hockey intact and also ensures the ALS Association Minnesota-North Dakota-South Dakota chapter will receive plenty of tournament proceeds. "Everybody's laughing, because this is so much more fun than we thought it'd be," says Lindsay, the tournament's organizer. "We're feeling like we've obviously just got to roll with it, have a great attitude and make it as fun as we can."

11:07 a.m. "It's a really cool venue down on the water in Stillwater," Schroeder says from morning skate at Xcel Energy Center ahead of Minnesota's game against Anaheim later tonight. "What a great day for hockey in Minnesota."

12:04 p.m. Back at Lowell Park, Thief River Falls' Parker Lane swoops in on a late breakaway, but Zephyrs goalie Josh Campbell is equal to the task. After thwarting the attempt, he pops up in his crease and shakes his head vehemently. No.

He'll finish with 15 saves in a 3-0 shutout he's dedicated to his late uncle Jeff, who inspired Josh's love of hockey -- and goaltending -- before tragically passing away about a decade ago. Jeff wore No. 1 for Mahtomedi back in the 1980s; that number's not allowed, but the Zephyrs have made an exception today.

"I think he's looking down smiling at us," Josh beams afterward, wearing Jeff's old letter jacket.

Saturday Afternoon

Jan. 21, 2017

1:22 p.m. High-level prospect Casey Mittelstadt scores the first of his two goals in an eventual 4-1 victory, then leaps into his own bench. Mittelstadt made the uncommon choice to stick with high school pucks his senior year -- a rarity for a player of his caliber -- and taking part in events like Hockey Day were part of the reason why, he'll tell reporters after the game.

"You get to come back, play outside with your buddies; that's how it all started, and that's how you fall in love with the game to start with."

1:32 p.m. From inside Alt'N'Bach's Town Tap in central Madison, Wisconsin, Dane Yde explains how what he and his friends call BadgerFest came to be. It started in 2006 when the Sioux Falls resident and acquaintances from nearby Luverne, Minnesota made the trek to Mad Town. It has morphed into an annual tradition that usually includes between 15 and 30 participants. The group has been to a Golden Gophers-Badgers series 11 of the past 12 years, and all but one of them have been a road trip to the Kohl Center.

Alt'N'Bach's was the favorite bar of Yde's grandfather, and the tradition used to include meeting up with Grandpa Dick for beers and burgers. He's since died, but the ritual hasn't.

There are 13 of them taking part in this year. They've come from all over the country -- Michigan, Colorado, California, Wisconsin, and of course Minnesota -- and most of them are Gopher fans.

Not Yde, though. "I'm typically the lone Badger fan every year," says the 30-year-old, who calls Madison home and grew up going to games with his aunt and uncle's season tickets. He's heard plenty of smack today after Minnesota's overtime win here last night.

1:55 p.m. The Stillwater stadium is packed to the brim. Organizers announce an attendance of about 5,000, but easily close to 8,000 will come in and out by day's end.

2:05 p.m. "This is unbelievable," Leipold, the Wild owner, says, taking in the scene. A short while later, he climbs ¾ of the way up FOX Sports North's traveling press box for a better view.

2:40 p.m. Tony Novalany, exhausted but exhilarated, has to collect his emotions when asked what this day means to him. The Stillwater local organizing committee chair has poured hours -- years, actually -- of coordination, logistics management and sweat into this. So have the other parents who helped make it happen.

"It's hard to explain," says Novalany, whose son, Joey, is a senior defenseman for the Ponies. "My kid's out there … just a lot of emotion and a lot of work from a lot of different people that are involved in this."

2:43 p.m. Matt Doman, the Stillwater coach and fun-loving Wisconsin alum, dances to "Sandstorm" by Darude to keep warm while his team comes out for the third period.

3:29 p.m. No. 6 Eden Prairie completes its victory over the top-ranked home team. As the Eagles come off the ice, a student manager posits, "This ain't no upset."

3:30 p.m. The party is starting at the Maple Grove home of Rich Conley, who holds an annual Hockey Day gathering complete with a bubble hockey tournament, air hockey tourney, deep-fried turkey and old-time Nintendo and Sega hockey games. There are TVs in the living room, garage, basement and kitchen, and they're all tuned to FOX Sports North. "Everybody has to wear something hockey-related," Conley says. He expects more than 100 people to come through the door today.

4:02 p.m. Tartan Arena is packed for the Tartan Area Youth Hockey Association's Girls Hockey Day Celebration. They, too, do this every year -- a six-game slate of girls games ranging in age from U8 to U15.

4:11 p.m. The moisture has returned in Stillwater, creating a fog that all but blocks the Lift Bridge from view. The Stillwater Ice Castles -- previously thought to be closed all weekend -- are open for business next to Lowell Park.

Saturday Night

Jan. 21, 2017

5:20 p.m. St. Cloud State captain Lauren Hespenheide notches a shootout goal to give the Huskies a valuable WCHA standings point. The Shakopee native's team gave up a 3-0 lead then won in the shootout on her nifty score.

It's the first women's collegiate game on Hockey Day's official schedule.

7:01 p.m. The fog has thickened, making visibility difficult in the girls game between Stillwater and Minnetonka. But that doesn't stop junior goaltender Olivia Knox from skating off the ice with a 25-save, 2-0 shutout in tow. "Our goal was to limit them to two or less goals," Ponies coach Lee Gillespie says. "That's our game."

7:31 p.m. Dane Yde gets the last laugh. His Badgers salvage a weekend series split with a 5-3 victory. Afterward, the program's Twitter account throws shade at Wisconsin's nemesis, churlishly pointing out that Bucky beat the Gophers on Hockey Day Minnesota.

8:08 p.m. In 2006, Eveleth native and accomplished coach Pat Forte was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given six months to live.

Tonight, he delivers a stirring "Let's Play Hockey!" call at Xcel Energy Center before the Wild and Ducks face off. Still battling more than a decade after such a bleak prognosis, Forte last month was awarded the United States Hockey Hall of Fame "Spirit of Life" award. He's coached with Brainerd and St. Cloud Apollo High Schools, St. John's University, the Minnesota Select 17s and the Upper Midwest Elite League's North team.

9:42 p.m. They'll remember tonight's game for a three-goal outburst that took less than two minutes, but a breakaway save by Devan Dubnyk on Corey Perry keeps a 3-2 game from getting further out of hand late in the second period. Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, who's led this team to the best first half of a season in club history, calls it "a big moment in the game."

10:28 p.m. Erik Haula, resident Hockey Day hero, scores his second goal of the night. Dating back to his days at the University of Minnesota, he's played on Hockey Day seven times and now has three goals in said games.

10:30 p.m. Suter. Game winner. Xcel Energy Center quakes.

10:33 p.m. Jason Zucker. Game sealer. The volume goes up yet another notch.

"That was fun," Suter says after the game. "It was loud. The crowd was into it.

"It was a good ending to a great day for Minnesota."