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Hard Work, Heart Raise Rink in Lowell Park

Stillwater's Hockey Day Minnesota ice sheet has been crafted with love against a stunning backdrop

by Todd Smith / Special to Wild.com

STILLWATER -- On the banks of the St. Croix River in Stillwater, Minnesota, in the very birthplace of the North Star State, a hockey rink is being built.

This is no ordinary sheet of ice, though.

It's the 2017 Hockey Day Minnesota hockey rink, and it is being carefully sculpted into Lowell Park, a sliver of land in the heart of Stillwater. Nestled along the river with the St. Croix River Valley serving as a cinematic backdrop and the famous aerial lift bridge watching over all the proceedings like a steel trussed sentinel, the rink is shaping up to be the winter version of the iconic baseball field seen in the movie Field of Dreams when the puck drops Saturday.

Yes, it's that good.

Over the years, Hockey Day Minnesota has enjoyed a glorious run of unique hockey rinks full of whimsical winter charm in several of the bedrock towns in Minnesota hockey history such as Elk River, Duluth, Grand Rapids, and St. Paul. 

But the rink in Stillwater has something else entirely.

"One thing that Lowell Park brings to Hockey Day Minnesota is the intimate park setting," said Tony Novalany, the Stillwater local organizing committee chariman. "The park is long and narrow. But we have set up every inch of the park for people to enjoy. With the lift bridge as a backdrop and the river bank on the other side, it's going to be very scenic."

Along with the immaculate views and stellar lineup of the high school hockey teams that are participating, Hockey Day Minnesota in Lowell Park will feature a 7-foot by 12-foot ice wall, a massive ice castle, and multiple photo opportunities.

The venue will also include two Jumbotrons: one is being used as a scoreboard and the other is being used so that the expected overflow crowd can enjoy the game while they sit around the numerous fire pits in Lowell Park.

As gorgeous as the winter wonderland setting may be, it has taken a tremendous amount of work to build the rink in such an intimate locale.

Building an outdoor hockey rink in any location is a unique blend of meteorology, technology, craftsmanship, and blue-collar labor. But putting a hockey rink on a river bank in a park famous for being an idyllic summer location for picnics, weddings, and jogging has created numerous challenges. 

Novalany and the Stillwater community have worked closely with an assortment of companies such as Ice Rink Events, Xcel Energy and Raleigh Trucking to build the rink in the unique location. It has been a mix of hard hats, modern hockey rink construction supplies, and, of course, looking at the volatile Minnesota winter forecast.

"All of the work has been weather dependent," Novalany said with a sigh and chuckle. 

Classic Minnesota understatement aside, the series of steps that were required in the rink building process in Stillwater were demanding. 

More than 100 dump truckloads of dirt were delivered to level the playing area. Temporary power poles needed to be added to the property, too. Then five sets of 300-plus-seat bleachers were installed along the riverside first to set everything in place and stage the rink. 

With 75 percent of the bleachers in place, a special refrigerated mat with cooling coils was then installed last Monday to become the foundation for the playing surface. A team of volunteers stepped up and labored extensively to get the boards in place. The rink was then flooded and the chiller mat was plugged in and powered up.

Rest assured, there is still plenty of planning and work to do.

Ice will be painted, glass installed and new logos added to dasher boards. Crews will finish putting in the bleachers Wednesday. Light standards will be erected Thursday. Friday, the video board will provide a finishing touch before the main event begins with a handful of exhibition games that evening.

But after months of meetings and planning and construction, the hockey rink on the shore of the St. Croix River is starting to take shape, and everything is building to a Hollywood-like scene.

"Having Hockey Day Minnesota down at Lowell Park, in Stillwater, the birthplace of Minnesota, in the State of Hockey … all of the stars are aligning for us," Novalany said proudly. "Hockey is a game that started outside. Hosting Hockey Day in Minnesota down by the river is going to be phenomenal."

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