Ryan Mielke's one smart 11-year-old.
In the waning minutes of every game in Da Beauty League, dozens of kids in hockey garb press against each railing at the Zamboni entrance inside Edina's Braemar Arena.
"Haula, Haula, Haula!!!" they scream, waving hats, shirts and Sharpies in desperate attempts to get NHLers to stop for an autograph. "Guentzel, Guentzel!!! Bjugstad! Parise!!! Buff!!!!"
But one night, Mielke and his friends noticed Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula heading to a press box for radio interviews. So Mielke and his buddies hung there and patiently waited before swarming in.
Mielke struck gold. Haula, then Bjugstad signed his … forehead.
Mielke looked up with wide eyes at the 6-foot-6 Bjugstad and, with a giant smile, said: "I'm not going to wash my face."
"This is what it's all about," Bjugstad said seconds later.
Bjugstad, who grew up in Blaine, played for the Gophers and is now with the Florida Panthers, is one of many Da Beauty League players who treat every kid with open arms. He understands how only a few minutes of his day can brighten the one of what's bound to be a lifelong fan. He'll genuinely talk to the kids, ask how they're doing and help them with their cameras, showing teens the best angle to take that Snapchat snapshot.
And Bjugstad is in awe that so many children and adults flock to Braemar during their summer weeknights to watch a bunch of pros and college guys play in a no-hitting 4-on-4 league. The mostly Minnesota-based players — guys like Kyle Okposo, Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan McDonagh, Jake Gardiner, Nick Leddy and Derek Stepan — have been skating there since mid-July and have played in front of thousands of hockey fans delighted to accept the three games a night as a summer appetizer for the coming hockey season.
The final "regular season" games by six teams was Wednesday night, with honorary "Commissioner" John Scott, the retired Wild enforcer and NHL All-Star Game MVP, flying to Minnesota to lace 'em up. The playoffs begin Monday with two semifinals before a Wednesday night championship as players vie for the "John Scott Cup."
"It's insane how many people come to these games," said Bjugstad, who led Da Beauty League with 11 goals in seven games. "Every time I pull in, I get a little bit nervous when I see all the cars. Toward the end of the summer you get used to it, but the first few times, it's like, 'I don't know if I'm ready for this.' But the fans are what makes it fun for us."
Said agent Ben Hankinson: "It just shows you what good character guys these players are. They're smart enough to know that they were these kids once."
Hankinson, a former Gopher and one of the Minnesota-based arms of the large hockey player agency Octagon, is one of a handful who came up with the Da Beauty League idea in the fall of 2015 after years of running a summer pro camp that also begins next week.
"Everyone I talked to said, 'It's not going to work,'" Hankinson recalled. How would they get players? Where would they hold it? When should games be played since most players like to do their training in the morning and be done for the day? How would they pay for uniforms, trainers, ice, referees, snacks, drinks and laundry?
"But the more I and a couple guys smarter than me thought about it, it was like, 'There's no way this won't work,'" Hankinson said. "There's way too many guys around here that love to skate together, train together, and there's probably not a better way for them to condition than to actually compete."
The league is expensive, so Octagon secured six team sponsors — Bic, Tria, Tradition Companies, RBC Royal Bank, Velocity Hockey and Walser. They brought on 27-year-old Aaron Morem of Victoria, who has teamed up with folks promoting the league via social media. Their Twitter and Instagram presence is impressive, and game highlights and stats are uploaded quickly.
Then, they organized a charity component where partial proceeds from paid admissions go to the United Heroes League and San Jose Sharks defenseman and former Gopher Paul Martin's new foundation, Shine a Light.
The charities were a huge engine toward convincing players to partake. The United Heroes League provides hockey gear to kids of military members, while Martin's foundation assists neglected, abused, bullied, depressed and suicidal children and military members who deal with PTSD. The goal is to raise money for the Washburn Center and Domestic Abuse Project and fund scholarships for Camp Confidence.
"This is so big to help get this foundation off the ground," said Martin, whose first public event includes a celebrity meet-and-greet and acoustical jam at First Avenue on Sept. 3. "Brent Burns is one of the players coming, and he's worth the price of admission on his own."
The name of the league derives from the hockey term "beauty," a term of an endearment given to a teammate.
There are certainly a bunch of beauties.
You've got Guentzel, the rookie Stanley Cup champ who led all NHLers in playoff goal scoring and lighting up Da Beauty League with 10 goals and a league-high 19 points in six games. You've got New York Rangers tag-team McDonagh and Brady Skjei; the always bubby Nate Schmidt and his new Vegas Golden Knights teammate Haula and Jake Bischoff. The goalies include the Wild's Alex Stalock and former UMD Bulldog and new Arizona Coyote Hunter Miska, who has wowed all summer with highlight-reel saves.
The players love it.
"I touch the puck a lot more in these games," joked Schmidt, the former Gophers star. "It's not just about getting in shape for us, but you're playing against good players, so it's not like a pickup game you're playing in the middle of the week. You don't want to look bad in front of the kids and you're working on small things that'll help you throughout the season.
"Everyone gets their hockey fix. We get our hockey fix, and so do the fans."
Looking for deals
Players have other motivations. Drew Stafford, last year's Da Beauty League MVP, and Matt Hendricks are still searching for NHL jobs. Okposo is trying to work his way back to the Buffalo Sabres after a terrifying season-ending situation that landed him in ICU after his body reacted negatively to medication for a concussion.
"It feels good just to be back playing and not thinking about anything," Okposo said. "I've been on the ice a lot and no ill effects. It's still early. It's a step in the process. I'm going through my regular routine that I go through in the summers to make sure I'm ready for camp and ready to go and ready to play 82 games. This has shown me I'm on the right track."
The coaches include some beauties as well, like Keith Ballard, Brian Lawton, Ryan Malone and Mark Parrish.
Parrish and his pal Cities 97 radio host Paul Fletcher coach Team Walser, which has standouts like Brock Boeser, Byfuglien and James van Riemsdyk. Yet, after six straight losses to open the season, they finally won their first game Monday night.
It has led to a lot of cracks back and forth, like when Chris McAlpine asked if they talked to their "demoralized" team after a recent loss and when Hankinson joked that "we're thinking about" a coaching change.
"But Parrish has too big of a mouth and would probably explode on Twitter, so it would hurt us in the long run," said Hankinson.
Parrish threatened trades, saying he was "open for business" and that "no one's safe" after being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
Long time coming
Even the parents get involved with the barbs. Boeser's dad, Duke, has helped Parrish and Fletcher coach, something Boeser's mom, Laurie, says, "clearly hasn't helped."
In a recent game, when it was announced San Jose Sharks defenseman Justin Braun of White Bear Lake was up for Player of the Game for scoring two goals and two assists, Braun's dad Paul cracked, "That never happens."
It's a heck of a league when former Wild checker Stephane Veilleux can't remember after one game if he had "five or six points."
Besides the pros, there are several top college players like the Gophers' Casey Mittelstadt.
"[Gophers coach] Don Lucia has to love this," Hankinson said. "For his guys to play out here with these pros, that's invaluable."
Longtime Wild defenseman Nate Prosser, who recently signed with St. Louis, said there's nothing better than hockey during the summer time.
"I don't know why they didn't do it sooner," Prosser sad. "There's so many NHL, AHL, good college players that stay in the metro all summer, so it's kind of a no-brainer. They should have done this 10 years ago. It's just great to see, and the guys have embraced it. Our state loves hockey. It doesn't matter what month it is. It doesn't matter if it's January or April or August. The whole state's centered around hockey, and the fans show that every week."