University of Minnesota junior defenseman Brady Skjei returned to the Gopher lineup last weekend after missing two games due to an injury.
“It was awesome. It’s been a few weeks,” he said. “It’s pretty frustrating to sit on the sidelines when the team’s playing.”
While the games, a pair of losses to Michigan, didn’t go the way Skjei or his teammates wanted, being back healthy means that he will be able to once again participate in Hockey Day Minnesota this weekend. The Gophers face Wisconsin at Mariucci Arena on Saturday at 5 p.m.
Playing in Hockey Day Minnesota is an old feeling to many on the team, which has played in every version of the event that serves to celebrate hockey at all levels. That can be both good and bad. It’s tough sometimes for an event to be special when that becomes part of the routine.
Yet that’s not how the Gophers, 3-0-1 in its last 4 HDM games, see the annual event.
“It’s always fun,” said Seth Ambroz, a New Prague native who scored in last year’s Hockey Day Minnesota win over Ohio State. “It’s a good thing for Minnesota and the whole state to recognize all the different – from high school on up – all the different games and teams we have here. So it’s good to be part of it, a lot of fun. It’s good for our state and everyone enjoys it.”
To them, it’s a reminder where most grew up playing. Twenty-four of the 27 members on the Minnesota hockey team are natives of the State of Hockey. (Of the three who aren’t, Missouri native Sam Warning has his own HDM memory scoring a natural hat trick in 2014 while Swedish freshmen Leon Bristedt and Robin Höglund will be participating in their first.) Several, including Gophers captain Kyle Rau (Eden Prairie, 2010) and sophomore defenseman Jake Bischoff (Grand Rapids, 2013), participated while in high school.
Although the Gophers are not enjoying the outdoors against its Big Ten rivals on Hockey Day like the high schools, there is nothing wrong with settling for the indoor ice surface of Mariucci.
“It’s always fun playing outdoors. I would have loved to have another outdoor game,” said Ambroz, who has played in two with Minnesota. “But this ice is pretty nice so I can’t really go away from that.”
It’s no different for the rest of the Minnesotans. They all have their own memories of what makes hockey in Minnesota special. Connor Reilly, a redshirt sophomore forward, recalled playing in youth tournaments and in high school, saying it was the time of his life.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “You have so many close people, close communities. Everyone has each other’s back.”
The 23-year-old Reilly grew up in Chanhassen, having shooting contests in the basement with his siblings. Twin brother Ryan and younger brother Mike are both teammates. All five Reillys are D1 hockey players. Older sister Shannon played hockey at Ohio State from 2006-2010 and younger sister Caitlin is currently a freshman at Penn State.
Having both brothers on the team helps Connor, on a career-best eight game point streak, because according to him no one knows his game better. They aren’t the only ones who help in the community.
“There definitely are rivalries, but everyone cares for each other,” said Connor. “You always feel like you have somebody to lean on because the hockey community is so close and everyone is so invested in the game that they love.
“You’re always going to help out one another, which is gratifying and what you love about Minnesota.”
For Skjei, the Lakeville native enjoys the entire day and not just the game he is playing.
“I think it’s a little bigger stage and we’ll probably have more people watching than normal. It’s a fun day,” he said. “It’s fun watching the high school guys go out and play on the outdoor ponds and then our game at 5 and then the Wild at night.”