They arrive at school in the wee hours many days because not having their own hockey rink in town requires concessions and sacrifice. And the ability to function on little sleep.
Their team nickname should be the “Early Risers” because that is their normal schedule. Get to school by 4:20 a.m., take a 20-minute bus ride to a neighboring town in darkness, change into their hockey gear, hit the ice by 5:15 a.m. for practice and then reverse the process to make sure they’re back in time for school.
Why on earth would teenagers put themselves through such sheer agony? Because playing for North Branch’s hockey team means that much to them.
“It’s the only thing they’ve ever known,” coach Matt Cottingham said. “I always joke that it weeds out the ones that aren’t fully committed.”
The ones who remained fully committed reaped the rewards with the thrill of a lifetime Wednesday — a chance to play in the Class 1A boys’ hockey state tournament at Xcel Energy Center, the first appearance in this grand event for North Branch’s program.
The outcome wasn’t what they wanted — a 7-0 loss to St. Cloud Cathedral — but their entire journey to downtown St. Paul deserves a round of applause.
Cottingham took over the program six years ago. Only 21 players came to tryouts, a few who had never played organized hockey. Some didn’t own skates or equipment. That team won four games.
Fast forward six years. North Branch skated onto the ice Wednesday with what looked like half the city of North Branch in the stands, dressed in red.
“It’s an incredible turnaround,” Cottingham said. “These kids have earned every single thing. They don’t take anything for granted.”
The program’s development has been steady, despite disadvantages. Namely, North Branch doesn’t have a rink in town.
The Vikings practice and play games at Chisago Lakes High School’s arena in Lindstrom. Plans to build their own rink has been discussed for years without much movement because of funding.
“There’s a brick building that would act as a warming house, but that’s about as far as they got,” Cottingham said.
Players set their alarm on practice days for 3:45 a.m. — or earlier — so they’re not late. Complaining won’t solve anything.
“You have to get in the right mind-set,” goalie Jake Turek said. “It definitely takes a toll on you, but everybody is ready to work every morning.”
Participation has increased even with those obstacles. The program had 31 players this season. Cottingham even welcomes players who didn’t play on youth teams but want to be part of what he’s building. He has bought players skates with his own money.
“That’s the nice thing about being a small program,” he said. “We can allow kids opportunities that, if they went somewhere else, that would not happen.”
The Vikings earned their inaugural berth to the state tournament by winning the Section 5 championship over Chisago Lakes, their biggest rival.
On their return home, a procession of police cars and fire engines greeted the team bus to provide an escort back to school for a late-night celebration. Sirens blaring, lights flashing as they drove slowly through town. Hundreds of well-wishers waited in the gym. Fans stood along the side of the road and took videos. A small town bursting with pride.
“I don’t think any of them slept,” Cottingham said.
They didn’t get a fairy tale ending. North Branch ran into a better team in the quarterfinals. St. Cloud Cathedral’s speed overwhelmed the Vikings with five goals in the second period.
“We should have started at 5:15 a.m.,” Cottingham said jokingly.
His program should get a significant bounce from this experience. That usually happens when a team accomplishes something momentous for the first time. Excitement sweeps through the community. More people pay attention. Kids get excited and interested in the program.
“This could change our whole association,” Turek said.
Who knows, maybe this will lead to the construction of their own rink.
“We took one on the chin today,” he said. “But we’re going to be around for a while.”