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.”