Two days of hockey heaven in St. Paul

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2011 - 9:09 AM

Fans near and far relished the opportunity to gather for the NHL draft.

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The drama of the NHL draft is only part of the appeal for Lou Grillo.

The Rochester, N.Y., native, who's rarely missed a draft in 20 years, trekked to St. Paul this weekend for a rarity of its own: Minnesota hosting the draft for only the second time in its history.

For the players, it was a tension filled, career-making event. For the fans, it was pure sports entertainment, an unofficial convention of diehards from across the country but united by their passion.

"I love it," Grillo said, clutching binoculars to see the action from his general admission seats at the Xcel Energy Center on Saturday. "There's a lot of human drama in this. And it's an excuse to come here."

Sporting a Rochester Americans jersey and hat, the retiree analyzed the picks with friend and fellow New Yorker George Konz while their wives shopped at the Mall of America. They planned to meet Sunday with four Minnesotans whom Grillo has traded sports team schedules with for years and eat at local restaurants highlighted on cable TV. At the end of the visit, Grillo will have checked off his 17th draft and 39th state to visit.

It was also a landmark weekend for Minnesota, which last played host to the NHL draft in 1989. The "State of Hockey" got to prove it again, hosting teams from all over the country and uniting adoring fans with hockey's future stars.

Eighteen-year-old Jodi Taylor of Tampa, Fla., flew to St. Paul using recently earned graduation money to rendezvous with two young female hockey fans she's chatted with online at fan sites for more than a year. It was the first time she had met 24-year-old Dakota Saukel of Spearfish, S.D., and 19-year-old Ari Yanover of Calgary, Alberta.

"It will be hard to stay away," she said of future drafts.

Brian Arvin didn't have to travel far from his St. Paul home, but he wasn't going to miss the rarity of an NHL draft in Minnesota.

"'Cuz it's hockey; you're in Minnesota," he said as he browsed player profiles on his iPad. "I've always wanted to go. How many times can it come back here? Once every 30 years?"

Next to him, Tara and Brad Hall of Cottage Grove wanted to see the selection of top high school talent in person after watching the draft on TV each year.

"It gives you a connection to the players that are up and coming," Brad said. "You'll follow them along in college."

Meanwhile, Griffin Witta, 8, was just soaking up the celebrity. He scurried around the club area of the arena with his twin brother, Brooks, ducking between the towering figures of newly drafted young men, soliciting them to sign a Wild helmet and Carolina Hurricanes hat.

"It's just fun," Witta said before beckoning to his brother as another tall hockey player appeared. "Ooh! Is that him?"

While it was all spectacle for most of the couple hundred fans sprinkled throughout the seats Saturday, it was a monumental, anxiety-ridden day for the Reilly family of Chanhassen.

Seventeen-year-old prospect Michael Reilly was waiting for his name to be called with his hockey-crazed family. His dad, Mike, played for the U and was drafted by Montreal in the 1970s. His twin brothers play for the Sioux Falls Stampede and have both committed to the Gophers, and his sister played for Ohio State and will now play in Switzerland.

"As time went on, it was like, 'Am I going to get drafted?'" Reilly's father said later.

He did. Sporting a Columbus Blue Jackets jersey over his shirt and tie, Reilly said afterward that he was relieved and excited. He has played hockey since he was 3 and will now play in Vancouver for a year with his brothers.

"For all he's put into the game, this is a day he can sit back and say, 'This is great,'" his father said. "We're happy for him."

Joyous moments like theirs, witnessed on the giant TV screen, drew admiration from such fans as Grillo.

"It's like a convention," Konz said. "This is the future of hockey; they're the guys who will carry the load for the future generations."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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