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Prep hockey teams live dream outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium

By DAVID LA VAQUE, Star Tribune, 01/11/14, 9:42PM CST


The weather cooperated and the ice was good for five critical prep games Saturday.

Minnetonka’s Sara Holmgren, center, chased a loose puck as Eden Prairie’s Anna Johnson, left, and Lauren Boyle defended on the play during a outdoors game at TCF Bank Stadium.

Heaters under players’ benches. Spent hand-warmer packs on the tunnel floor to the locker room. Eye black and extra layers.

Outdoor hockey at TCF Bank Stadium required unique preparations for the 10 teams playing in the Hockey High School Faceoff. The Minnetonka and Eden Prairie girls’ teams played in the first-ever high school game at the stadium, offering Skippers defenseman Sydney Baldwin another memorable moment in a stellar prep career.

“I can’t say I ever played in a football stadium before,” said Baldwin, an integral part of the Skippers’ past three Class 2A state championship teams. “We rallied around the opportunity to play here and all came out and played a great game.”

Trailing 1-0 since midway through the first period, Eden Prairie rallied to tie the score with 51 seconds left. But Baldwin got the final word, netting the unassisted winner as the Skippers won 2-1 in overtime.

Beyond being memorable for players, all five games Saturday were critical to conference title chases. Postseason position was also at stake. The Minnetonka boys’ team posted a 4-1 upset over No. 7 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, important to seeding in Section 6 in Class 2A.

“It was probably the biggest win of the season for us,” said junior defenseman John Schuldt, who scored the last of the Skippers’ three goals in a pivotal second period. “This was a dream to play in. It was a little hard to sleep [Friday] night knowing we got to play on a bigger stage.”

Players modified their attire as temperatures hovered around freezing much of the day. Turtle necks and long-sleeve shirts were worn under the shoulder pads of players who normally sport T-shirts.

Minnetonka girls’ assistant coach Maureen Hardwick, who grew up skating outside on the “Outlaw Rink” in her native Warroad, found it tougher to stay warm as a spectator.

“It got a little chilly down there after the first period, but then they cranked up the heaters,” Hardwick said. “I was ducking down the whole time trying to warm up.”

Eden Prairie goaltender Whitney Padgett, a self-described “freeze baby,” donned a stocking hat over her helmet. Minnetonka’s Jacob Berger and Benilde-St. Margaret’s Jalen Long, Padgett’s peers between the pipes, did likewise.

The NHL-sized (200 feet x 85 feet) refrigerated ice held up, requiring only occasional, minor maintenance between periods. The moderate air temperature did not tax the cooling and heating chemicals pumped through approximately 17 miles of tubes under the ice. Official were concerned about the quality of the ice earlier last week when the mercury plummeted.

In the other boys’ games, Ryan Graff and Nolan Miles each scored two goals as Bloomington Jefferson beat Lakeville South 6-4 despite Nick Oelrich’s hat trick. Cretin-Derham Hall defeated White Bear Lake 4-1 in a matchup of Suburban East teams previously unbeaten in the conference. And Eastview edged Eagan 3-2 in overtime in a rematch of the teams from the Section 3AA final a year ago. John Snodgrass scored the winner with 1:09 left in the extra period.

Meaningful games and more seasonable weather were not enough to entice larger numbers of fans. Thin crowds throughout the day sat in the stadium’s maroon and gold seats under blankets or clutching coffee mugs while some opted to stand in the concourse — which was covered in ice-melting salt.

Good seats will be much harder to come by for the stadium’s next outdoor hockey games.

The Hockey City Classic on Jan. 17 features two-time defending NCAA women’s hockey champion Minnesota playing Minnesota State Mankato and the Gophers men’s team facing Ohio State. More than 40,000 tickets have been sold to the state’s first outdoor collegiate hockey event.

Although Benilde-St. Margaret’s lost its second outdoor hockey game in as many seasons, Red Knights’ forward Spencer Naas said his fondness for playing in the elements endures.

“Outdoor games are always a blast,” Naas said.

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