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Hockey Day Minnesota Unifies Stillwater Community

All eyes shift to Stillwater as preparations begin for Hockey Day Minnesota 2017 presented by Wells Fargo

by Devin Lowe / Wild.com

This story appears in the October issue of Wild Magazine.

STILLWATER, Minn. -- As temperatures begin their precipitous fall and hockey season inches closer, Lowell Park in Stillwater sits empty, save for the occasional jogger hustling down the path that curves along the St. Croix River and the gulls that line its banks.

But in four months' time, the park will be transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with ice castles and an outdoor hockey rink, for Hockey Day Minnesota presented by Wells Fargo.

"Lowell Park is very intimate," said Tony Novalany, head of the executive steering committee for the upcoming Hockey Day. "The way the rink is set up, it's going to be right on the river. And it's going to be a tremendous experience."

While Novalany and a team of volunteers coordinate the off-ice logistics, the Stillwater Ponies will be preparing to take the ice and reach the lofty goals they set last season when they took fourth place in the MSHSL Boys' State Tournament.

And this January, on Hockey Day Minnesota, these two storylines will intersect to create a special sort of magic in Stillwater, the birthplace of Minnesota.

A special setting

Stillwater has had its hopes set on hosting Hockey Day Minnesota since the Ponies played in Elk River's Hockey Day back in 2014. When the city's 2017 bid was accepted, Novalany and his crew sprung into action.

"When we started on this process, you kind of don't know what you don't know," Novalany said. 

To remedy this, he reached out to coordinators of past Hockey Days, from Duluth to St. Paul to Elk River. From there, Novalany and the committee were able to draft a plan that included details on site development, ticket sales, volunteer coordination, sponsorship and more.

Novalany is a natural fit in his role as head of the steering committee. At his day job as a director of project management at RBC Wealth Management, he spends most of his time overseeing work streams. When it came time for committee members, many of whom are Novalany's RBC coworkers, to select a leader, he was an obvious pick.

The U.S. branch of RBC is deeply connected to Stillwater hockey through its president, Tom Sagissor. Sagissor was Stillwater's director of youth hockey from 2004 to 2012, and of his four sons, two played in Elk River's Hockey Day and two will play this year in Stillwater. 

"We saw what Elk River did … and we all just kind of talked and said, 'We want to replicate what was done in Elk River in an even bigger and better fashion down on the St. Croix River in Stillwater,'" Sagissor said.

As a member of the executive steering committee, Sagissor sees himself as a supporter of all functions through sponsorship, networking and acting as a liaison.

Stillwater's Hockey Day will be special, Sagissor believes, because the people organizing it and the community hosting it are passionate about making it a success.

"From a differentiation standpoint, some people would look at just money," Sagissor said. "For example, when Vladimir Putin got the Olympics in Sochi, he said, 'I'm going to spend $60 billion and make it the most fantastic thing ever. But it wasn't, because he didn't have a spirit, he didn't have a community in Sochi; I was there, I saw it.

"It doesn't just take money: it takes people. It takes human capital to make this successful."

What Sagissor's people have created is a plan that's entirely unique to Stillwater.

The FOX Sports North cameras will shoot at an angle that captures Stillwater's lift bridge. Ice castles will line the edges of Lowell Park. Stillwater's local businesses will be offered stands to sell their fares free of charge. And on Friday night, alumni of the Minnesota Gopher Hockey program will face off against their rivals to the east: Wisconsin Badger alums.

The college alumni game will be Stillwater's addition to Hockey Day tradition. Sagissor, who won an NCAA title with Wisconsin in 1990, and Matt Doman, Stillwater's boys' head coach and a fellow Badger alumnus, will both have their moment under the lights during Friday night's game.

After that, all eyes will be on the Ponies.

A program on the rise

When looking at the Stillwater Ponies' potential this season, it seems as if several elements have coalesced to raise hopes, expectations and spirits.

Last season, the Ponies went 27-3-1, winning eight straight to secure the top spot in the Suburban East conference and losing just one game during regular season play. They entered the conference playoffs with a goals-per-game average of more than five. They'd outscored their regular-season opponents by a three-to-one margin.

It was no surprise that they made the state tournament.

The surprising part was the team's rise from relative mediocrity to a program of prominence in such a short time.

When current head coach Matt Doman took the team over from the legendary Phil Housley, now an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators, in 2013, the team had never been to a state tournament or won a conference championship. But a culture shift had been set in motion.

The real change happened, Doman thinks, when players who grew up playing together in the Stillwater Area Youth Hockey Association began staying in Stillwater.

"Better players felt like they had to go to private school," Doman said. "We've done, I think, a pretty good job as a group to really change that culture. Kids want to stay here. They want to stay with their buddies. They don't feel like they have to go anywhere else."

Under Doman, the Ponies have earned two conference championships and two state tournament runs that culminated in the team taking fourth place in the 2016 tournament.

Doman expects that success to continue this season. With anywhere from 10-15 of last year's juniors returning as seniors, the core of the Ponies' state tournament team will remain intact.

"We're talented," Doman said. "You can do a lot with kids that work hard and compete for each other, but it's tough to be one of the best teams if you don't have talent. If you can combine that talent with hard work and good character kids, then you can be really good."

Two of those returning players are Luke Manning and Noah Cates, who played on the same line last year. They're both familiar with Hockey Day Minnesota: their older brothers played for the Ponies in Elk River's Hockey Day.

"It was cool just to see how big of an event it was, and to be playing in it this season will be really fun," Manning said.

Manning, Cates and their class have grown up together, moving through the Stillwater youth ranks in unison. This season, their goal is to take care of unfinished business.

"We want to get back to the tourney and win it this year," Cates said.

A community's big moment

No matter the outcome of the Ponies' season, the team will pause January 21 for a celebration of the game and city that have given so much to the state of Minnesota.

For the players, Hockey Day will be their opportunity to return to the place where the game first started: outdoors amid the winter elements, for better or worse. Though they have no say in what Mother Nature will deliver that day, Manning is hoping for a bit of light snow.

And for much of the committee, Hockey Day will not only be the culmination of all their hard work. For Novalany, Sagissor, Bob Manning (in charge of gameday operations) and Jeff Cates (heading site development), it will be the chance to see their sons play in the game of a lifetime.

"I'll be there as a parent, and I'll be very proud of the team and the kids that are on that team," Sagissor said. "I've coached them all."

Doman knows what his team is capable of, and he understands how important the outcome of Hockey Day is for the Ponies, especially against an opponent as formidable as the Eden Prairie Eagles.

But instead of fixating on the score, Doman would much rather his players embrace the experience: the bite of the January air against their faces, their families and friends bundled up in the stands, the glow of the St. Croix River behind them.

"It's not just another game, so to say it's just another game is not truthful," Doman said. "I'm going to try to approach it like we did the first time [in Elk River] and being at the state tournament. Enjoy every minute of it. Take advantage of all these opportunities.

"Is there the risk that you're maybe distracting from the game? Yeah, there's probably a little bit of that risk. But at the end of the day, I think that's a risk we're probably willing to take in order to truly experience everything the day can offer."

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