Leon Lillie jumped up from his perch behind the bench at Highland Arena: SCORE!
“Is that a hat trick for Winkler?” shouted Lillie, an eight-term DFL state representative from North St. Paul, who swapped his usual suit coat for a jersey with a Schwan’s logo emblazoned across the front. Ryan Winkler, the DFL House majority leader, glided up next to him and jumped behind the bench, too.
“No,” he clarified. “It’s four.”
It’s not their usual scene in St. Paul, but for decades, a group of current and former legislators, lobbyists, staffers, state employees and any one else they could persuade to show up have gathered every Sunday during the legislative session for a game of ice hockey.
It started with a pickup game 30-some years ago and never really stopped. There are no team jerseys or captains, and no clock or referees, but the players keep showing up, week after week. Somehow the tradition has survived contentious budget fights, government shutdowns, and increasingly divisive state and national politics. It has outlasted at least three Minnesota governors who have played on the team, too.
The players are taking a break amid the global pandemic, but they expect to outlast coronavirus as well.
“I used to pass the puck to [former Gov. Tim] Pawlenty so many times he claimed I violated the gift ban,” said Joel Carlson, a lobbyist and former state legislator who has played from the beginning. “Hockey’s not partisan. We have Republican hockey players, Democratic hockey players, nonpartisan. We take all kinds.”
Hockey isn’t partisan, but it is distinctly Minnesotan. Nicknamed the “State of Hockey,” Minnesota is home of the boys state high school hockey tournament, which draws more than 100,000 fans to the Xcel Energy Center every year. It’s the birthplace of the Minnesota North Stars and Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooks, who led the 1980 U.S. hockey team — also filled with Minnesotans — to Olympic gold.
And there’s long been hockey royalty in the ranks of state lawmakers. Before he was elected governor, Wendell Anderson was on the 1956 U.S. hockey team that won a silver medal at the Winter Olympics. State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, played professional hockey for 16 years in Italy, skating for the team in the 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympic Games before returning to Minnesota, opening an insurance office in his hometown on the Iron Range and running for office.
Pawlenty played hockey growing up in South St. Paul and started playing Sunday nights as a state legislator and eventually governor. He took some serious blows, including a stick to the neck during his 2012 campaign for president that required medical attention. But overall, he said the team helped alleviate political tensions.
“Being teammates on Sunday night created camaraderie that softened some of the political elbows and crosschecks thrown at the Capitol during the rest of the week,” he said.
No one remembers exactly what year it all began, but there’s no dispute about the team’s unlikely founder, former state Rep. Phyllis Kahn. Bespectacled, standing 5 feet tall, Kahn never strapped on skates before moving to Minnesota from Brooklyn to take a job as a biophysicist for the University of Minnesota. In 1972, she was elected to the Legislature as a Democrat from Minneapolis, becoming one of just six women serving in the Minnesota Legislature.
She was upset when she found out a male-exclusive group of legislators had formed a hockey team called the Golden Horses, named after the gleaming four-horse chariot that sits at the base of the Capitol’s dome. Out of protest, Kahn formed her own co-ed team with another legislator, Bob Milbert, and his wife, Vicky.
Kahn, now 82, doesn’t play anymore because of knee issues, but she still watches from the bench and goes to Skinner’s Pub with the team afterward for a drink. From the bench on a recent Sunday, she opened her winter jacket to reveal a blue Golden Seahorses jersey, which she made for herself three decades ago in answer to the all-male team. The seahorse is a feminist symbol, she notes, because the males carry the fetus in a pouch and care for it until birth.
After starting the team, Kahn eventually changed state law to require equal ice time for boys and girls.
“Wow, they have two goalies tonight!” Kahn remarked from the bench, her Brooklyn accent still thick. “That’s pretty good.”
Politicians love to refer to themselves as goalies, blocking bad bills and policies, but actual goalies are hard to come by in the Capitol, she said. Kahn once recruited a constituent to play while knocking on doors for her re-election campaign.
Former U.S. senator and governor Mark Dayton was the closest thing they ever got to a real goalie. He played in high school and was a college goalie at Yale University who had ambitions to play Olympic hockey. He might have if another college player hadn’t accidentally glided over his throat, tearing open his windpipe and voice box and setting him on his path toward politics instead.
But as state auditor in the 1990s, Dayton is the only person known to have ever thrown a punch during the Sunday night games. No one can remember who he punched or why, just that he punched someone.
There’s little talk of politics on the ice, except for passing mention of upcoming elections and some friendly House and Senate rivalry.
“You know no one really likes the Senate, other than you,” Lillie said to Sens. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, and Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, who was playing on the opposite team.
Anderson isn’t running again and leaving politics behind after this legislative session, but he still shows up to play on Sunday nights. “It’s a great diversion,” he said.
Winkler, an attorney who manages the House caucus by day, said the Sunday night games are the only time he gets to play hockey anymore.
“The point is just some fellowship,” he said. “In the cathedral of hockey.”