“Right about here!” Dennis Christian called to his two sons, Jason and Ben.
They followed their father’s tracks to the clearing on the side of the hill. Ben’s two boys, Bennett and Cooper, bound in the fresh powder, kicking up snow like their grandfather before them, five decades ago.
“This is the path we took just about every day,” Christian said as he looked over his shoulder.
Standing up the hill from the legendary Handke Pit in Elk River, the family posed for a picture. The celebrated outdoor rink is where Christian learned to play hockey and skated for Elk River High School from 1960-64.
Fifty years later it was the site of the 2014 Hockey Day Minnesota, the state’s annual celebration of the sport presented by Wells Fargo. More than 4,000 spectators were there to watch three high school hockey games: Cloquet/Esko/Carlton topped Rochester Lourdes, 4-1; Elk River won 4-1 against Stillwater; and Anoka skated to a 3-0 win over Elk River in the girls’ game.
It was my first time attending the high school portion of Hockey Day and my first time visiting The Pit, as it’s affectingly known. The Pit stands as a hockey work of art—its beauty fit for a museum.
The rink rests at the bottom of a glacier-formed bowl, creating a natural shield from the wind, and is guarded by looming oak trees on the south side and the back porches of residential houses to the north. The golden bricks of the original Elk River High School still overlook The Pit.
Listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites, it was dedicated in 1925 and enlarged as part of the New Deal. Elk River School District's first superintendent, James W. Clark, saw the potential to turn The Pit into something more. He led the project, turning what was a marsh into an athletic field for football and baseball, initially known as Elkhi Stadium. It would later become known as the Handke Pit after Clark’s successor, Robert Handke.
For Hockey Day Minnesota, The Pit was updated for the event with bleachers, scoreboards, LED lights, tents, construction trailers used for dressing rooms, and camera and broadcast platforms for FOX Sports North’s coverage of the day. But even with the modern additions, the rink retained its vintage quality.
“No way I would’ve missed this,” Tom Wiley said.
The Elk River resident sat in the ice-level bleachers during the first period of the Elks and Stillwater Ponies contest. During the second period he moved to the upper-bowl to take in the entire event.
“(The trees) add a little more to the outdoor aspect,” Wiley said.
Moments later he quickly shifts left and ducks, adjusting his view around the still-snow-coated branches, in time to see Andrew Zerban score on a breakaway to give the Elks a 2-0 lead.
“This is the perfect venue,” Wiley added. “I imagine there was a bit of a panic with the three to four inches from the night before.”
The event organizers were on the ice before dawn, clearing snow, which had no visible impact on the ice conditions. The trees cast long shadows over the rink, making the ice surface look like a shining backgammon board. The fresh powder provided a spotless canvas, giving the entire bowl an ethereal glow.
The fresh powder also provided entertainment for those a little less enthralled with a full day of hockey. Children slid down the side of the hill, using their backsides as natural toboggans, reminding bystanders that Hockey Day Minnesota is a celebration of the sport, but also a community gathering. Well, Elk River came out in droves to support the event.
“People coming together within the community has been amazing,” said one of the many volunteers, Todd McChesney. “As soon as I found out this was coming to Elk River, I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
McChesney was one of about 50 former Elk River High School players to skate at an alumni game on Wednesday before Hockey Day. Former players from the 1960s to 2013 split into two teams—they divided by odd and even graduating years.
The program's most famous alumni, Joel Otto, didn’t skate in the game, but was there for Hockey Day. The former National Hockey League forward, who won a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989, was there to drop the ceremonial puck before the Elk River boys’ game.
“If you pan around today, you see the support and the way the community came together to put the event on,” Otto said. “It’s just a proud community that works hard to make (an event like this) happen.
“It’s a great hockey program, and it starts with the Elk River youth system.”
Along with Otto, Elk River has produced three other NHL players: Dan Hinote (Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues), Paul Martin (New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins) and the Wild’s Nate Prosser. Of course, Prosser provided a fitting end to the day, scoring the game-winning overtime goal in the Hockey Day finale, leading the Wild to a 3-2 win against the Dallas Stars.
If you’ve played outdoor hockey in Elk River, there’s a good chance it was at The Pit. The game and the rink haven’t changed all that much throughout the years.
“Stand down along the boards, it’s almost like it was 50 years ago,” Christian said. “The rink and warming house are virtually in the same spot.”
Hockey Day Minnesota at the Handke Pit was a day made of memories. For those who grew up skating at The Pit, it was a chance to reflect on days gone by. For the players on the ice, the experience shaped a moment that will live forever. For those of us there for the first time, it was an indelible picture of the heights hockey can bring to a community.