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Reusse: Delano turning into an unlikely hockey hotbed

01/31/2017, 10:26pm CST
By PATRICK REUSSE, Star Tribune

The Tigers are 14-2-1 and rated No. 3 in Class 1A, behind Hermantown and Breck.


Delano's John Keranen (Photo By Matthew Moses, SportsEngine)

 

Tom Emmer is in the opening days of his second term in Congress and his Twitter avatar carries this message: “Husband, father, hockey fan and Congressman for Minnesota’s Sixth District.’’

When asked how he started in politics, the 55-year-old Emmer has been known to say, “Working on the Delano Youth Hockey Board.’’

This is a fine one-liner that also contains some truth.

Emmer and his wife, Jacqueline, moved to Delano in the mid-1990s with seven children, including six sons who wound up playing in the city’s youth hockey program.

Tom had played for St. Thomas Academy and then three seasons for the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks in the early ’80s. He also grew up in the Edina youth program, where there was a bit more development than could be expected in Delano, a baseball and basketball town that did not open its bare-bones indoor rink until January 1991.

“The kids I started coaching in Delano were in kindergarten and most of them couldn’t skate,’’ Emmer said. “We had to deal with that and go from there.’’

Minnesota Hockey, the state’s governing body for youth hockey, had A and B classifications for bantams, pee wees and squirts. Delano was attempting to compete at the A level and not doing well.

“I started pushing the idea that we go down to B, build a foundation and go back to A when our kids were ready for it,’’ Emmer said. “There’s one person that I won’t name because we’re friends, but we had some battles.

“Finally, one year at Christmas, our three teams in A had an overall record of 0-35-1. He came to me and said, ‘You’re right; we should try B.’ We did that. The kids became more enthused, we started getting more players, and we were back in A within three winters.’’

Delano’s first high school team was in 1985. Steve Brown was hired as the coach a decade later. Delano had a co-op program with Rockford and Watertown.

“We won three games that season, then five, then eight … slowly, we were making our way,’’ Brown said.

One major problem: The combined enrollment of Delano, Rockford and Watertown put the hockey team in Class 2A.

“We went to the quarterfinals of the section in 1999 and played great, absolutely the best we could play,’’ Brown said. “And we lost to Eden Prairie 9-1.’’

Eventually, the decision was made to drop Watertown (now with Mound) from the co-op. This put Delano hockey where it belonged, in Class 1A. And the fruits of a more enthused youth program and reasonable competition have turned Delano into (are you ready?) a hockey hotbed.

“The first time you really felt that was in 2006; we had a good year and were playing Hutchinson in the section quarterfinals in our rink,’’ Brown said. “The place was packed and the environment was just different. We won that night, and our crowds changed after that.’’

The Tigers had their first Division I recruit in Tyler Heinonen in 2010-11. He’s a senior forward at Michigan Tech. And now Delano has a high school freshman, Garrett Pinoniemi, who has made a verbal commitment to accept a scholarship at St. Cloud State.

Delano is a growing city, with a population of 5,500, but it’s still small enough that hockey players a decade apart are going to run into one another.

“We’re neighbors to both families,’’ Brown said. “Garrett grew up watching Tyler spend hours at the outdoor rink down the street, and he has done the same.’’

Here’s a confession:

My knowledge of Delano athletics was covering Tom Ditty as half of the great Ditty-(Terry) Porter basketball tandem at St. Cloud State long ago, the wonderful Delano ballpark, and the rugged football played for decades with coach Merrill Pavlovich.

I happened to notice a month ago that Delano-Rockford was rated No. 1 in boys’ Class 1A hockey and wondered: “What’s this about?’’

Right now, it revolves around Ben Meyers, Brian Halonen and John Keranen, senior forwards who have been skating together since before kindergarten. Meyers has signed with Maine, Halonen with Michigan Tech and Keranen is expected to wind up in Division I, too.

The Tigers are 14-2-1 and rated No. 3, behind Hermantown and Breck.

Yeah, Breck … the private school Mustangs, who have beaten the Tigers in four consecutive Section 2 finals.

The teams played earlier at Breck and Delano-Rockford won 5-2. Then again, the Tigers somehow lost earlier to Holy Family 10-1, so it’s a loaded section with no guarantee of a Delano-Breck rematch.

Brown quit in 2014 and is coaching youth hockey. Gerrit van Bergen, a former Tigers player, is now the coach trying to get Delano to its first state hockey tournament.

“The whole private school thing with Breck is more than a whisper out here, but I tried to ignore it,’’ Brown said. “What I know is this Delano team is deep, fast and with kids who can really score, and Gerrit has them playing well.’’

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. • preusse@startribune.com

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