Like a lot of Minnesotans, Robert Rees enjoyed the Minnesota state hockey tournament last weekend on television. After a while, however, he became irritated by the number of commercials from a particular advertiser — PolyMet.

“What does it take to play on a tournament team?” the ads began, as video of teens working out in the gym or running flickered on the screen. “The same kind of commitment it takes to open Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine — and protect what we all treasure.”

Message: Open-pit mining is like a healthy jog in the park.

PolyMet is a Canadian company in the midst of trying to get approval for a controversial plan to operate a sulfide mine to extract copper and nickel from the land between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, and too near for some to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).

The issue has been hotly debated, with more than 4,000 people attending several public meetings about the potential benefits and dangers of a mine, which would bring hundreds of jobs but also could threaten the pristine wilderness in the area.

The ability for the public to comment to the Department of Natural Resources ends March 13, so PolyMet’s decision to sponsor the hockey tournament days before a very political issue comes to a deadline could be seen as either genius or evil genius, depending on how you feel about mining as an economic driver.

It was certainly what you’d call a power play. But it was nothing new. PolyMet was a sponsor last year, too, just as the issue heated up.

“Yes, KSTP has the right to sell advertising time to whomever it chooses, and PolyMet has the right to purchase as many minutes of advertising airtime as it desires,” said hockey fan Rees. “But I don’t recall the last time that a company acted so brazenly to put its trademark [and unique spin] forward at a time when a political decision needs to be made about a proposed copper and nickel mine adjacent to the BWCAW.

“Yes, advertising is by definition self-serving,” Rees added. “But does that also mean that propaganda and gross distortion are legitimate aspects of ‘the message’? These questions, and a whole bunch more, came to me every 12 minutes when I was treated to either PolyMet advertisements or paid PolyMet executives singing the praises of their company.”

Mike Zipko, a spokesman for PolyMet, said the issue was “much ado about nothing.” He correctly pointed out that the teachers union, a highly political entity and “the biggest lobbyist in the state,” has sponsored the tournament for years.

“This wouldn’t be an issue if the Sierra Club had sponsored it,” said Zipko.

Frankly, I think it would. The fact that the high school hockey tournament can be politicized shows how hot the topic is.

Joe Johnston, marketing director for KSTC45, the station that aired the tournament, said he knew of only a couple of complaints about the advertising but that most feedback was positive. He said PolyMet was one of several sponsors, and the station doesn’t refuse advertising from any company.

“We sell advertising, that’s what we do, just like the Star Tribune,” said Johnston.

Aaron Klemz, communications director for Friends of Boundary Waters Wilderness, was struck by the company’s presence at this time.

“It’s not a new thing, but this year they were aggressively visible,” said Klemz. “PolyMet, as a company, has never operated a mine. And Minnesota is in the middle of a contentious discussion about what they propose to do. According to the DNR, over 39,000 public comments have been received on PolyMet’s proposal.

“The irony of PolyMet targeting the high school hockey tournament is that it’s future generations that are truly on the hook if PolyMet is permitted and leaves a mess behind,” said Klemz.

“PolyMet is a Canadian company. Their largest investor is a Swiss commodities trading firm [Glencore], with a poor environmental and human rights record, and who has an agreement to sell copper concentrate to China. The choice to wrap PolyMet in a Minnesota tradition is a PR move to conceal those facts.”