Parade Stadium, the centerpiece of the 14th annual Hockey Day Minnesota event, sits two slapshots and a wicked wrister from the rink where the host Minneapolis varsity boys’ team and girls’ team practice and play.
With no chance of insulating their players from the growing excitement, coaches are encouraging them to enjoy their moment. Joe Dziedzic, the boys’ coach and a former Minneapolis Edison standout, went so far as to call the event a mixture of Christmas, a wedding and the Stanley Cup.
Hockey Day Minnesota drops the puck Thursday evening with two girls’ varsity games, the first being Holy Angels against Minneapolis. An NHL alumni game takes the frozen stage Friday evening. Three Saturday games with be televised live on Fox Sports North — two involving boys’ high school teams and the third showcasing the Gophers women’s program.
Said sophomore forward Zander Zoia, who plays for Dziedzic: “We’ve all made numerous trips over there to check out the rink and see how it’s going. We’re all so excited.”
Both Dziedzic and Sarma Pone Ozmen, the Minneapolis girls’ hockey coach, embody the city’s rich hockey past as members of the Minneapolis Hockey Hall of Fame. But the present remains their focus.
Dziedzic, whose team plays at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, said hosting Hockey Day Minnesota is “like having the Stanley Cup for a day. You get to have your party with it, and this is our party.”
Dziedzic arrived in 2012-13, the third year of a single boys’ program available to players from all seven public schools. City hockey remains the few, the proud. And the sport is mostly a south-side venture. Three schools, South, Southwest and Washburn, provide all 39 boys in the program.
Roosevelt hockey died in 1997. Edison followed in 2005. The other five programs relied on various co-ops for survival. Then Minneapolis created East and West teams for the 2006-07 season. The arrangement lasted four seasons, but numbers failed to improve. So Minneapolis became a single program in 2010-11.
The upside includes four winning seasons out of seven under Dziedzic and five consecutive first-round playoff victories. Minneapolis (7-7-2) is riding a four-game unbeaten streak into Saturday’s game against Warroad (14-1), the No. 1 team in Class 1A.
“For so long, Minneapolis hockey has been overlooked,” freshman defenseman Drew Pitts said. “But now, Hockey Day has the spotlight back on Minneapolis and we want to show who we are and prove that we’re just as good as we used to be.”
Both city programs have worked to entice players and their families to remain in the city rather than bolt to private schools or suburban programs. The girls’ team, nicknamed the Novas, is 9-9-2.
“We’ve really tried connecting with the youth programs to get players to aspire to play for Minneapolis,” Pone Ozmen said. “As a result, we’ve kept more of our more talented players around. The tradition of great players in Minneapolis is long and we’re trying to reignite the high level of hockey in our great city.”
Highlights from the city’s hockey past include several Olympians and collegiate standouts. The 1970 boys’ hockey state tournament title won by Southwest is the only one won by a Minneapolis public school.
Minneapolis schools had a streak of 35 consecutive years (1946-80) of state tournament appearances. But in 1981, the Bloomington schools were moved into Region 5, finishing off what demographic changes started. Since 1980, Roosevelt (1992) and South (1993) reached the Tier II tournament and Edison qualified once in Class 1A (1994).
Dziedzic, the state’s 1990 Mr. Hockey Award recipient, played for the Gophers and in the NHL. He said Hockey Day Minnesota is both “a nod to our tradition and the great players that came from here, but it’s also a way to say, ‘We’re still here and there are still some guys who can play.’ ”
Dziedzic played in the waning days of a fuller Minneapolis hockey landscape, when the Minneapolis City Conference champion played its St. Paul counterpart. He remembers the scores from his Tommies’ losses to St. Paul Johnson in 1989 and 1990. Regardless of the outcome on Saturday, he hopes Hockey Day Minnesota lives on as a treasured memory for his guys.
“It’s been like a countdown to Christmas,” Dziedzic said of the wait since the location was announced last January. “It’s kind of like having your own wedding; there is so much planning, but you have to sit back and enjoy it because before you know it, it’s over.”