Known as the State of Hockey, Minnesota has long carried the tradition of excellent hockey players, big tournaments and events and a rich culture rivaled by no other sport.
Boasting a record setting state high school tournament, historic programs and teams at every level of the game and innumerable names etched in the history books, hockey is a way of life in Minnesota.
And while much of the focus is on what happens in the expensive, indoor arenas, many players will tell you their love of the game came from playing on outdoor rinks. Be it right in town, on a lake, or even in their own backyard, outdoor hockey rinks are where some of the best memories of the game are made.
Below are a few stories from area residents that have taken outdoor hockey into their own hands in recent years.
1995 Eveleth-Gilbert graduate Chad Pontinen has spent his entire life around hockey. Born and raised in Sparta between Eveleth and Gilbert, Pontinen spent many days growing up playing with his younger brother and their friends at the Sparta rink. As he got older, he took a job working at that same rink, flooding it out, shoveling off the snow and just skating around it when he had the opportunity.
The passion for hockey still burning, Pontinen is happy to pass that passion on to his kids. But instead of finding a town rink to play on, Pontinen decided he would construct his own. In 2014, he built a small “rink” on a flat spot next to his driveway. This would be only the beginning.
By 2016, he had cleared out some land on his property and moved the rink. He built it up to over time, slowly adding more and more to it each year. Now, it sits at 40 feet wide by 80 feet long and has its own warming shack on the side.
Pontinen’s oldest child, Eli, started learning how to skate when he was four, right when his father built the first rink. Now 10, Eli plays organized hockey for Virginia, and the rink in their own backyard has helped grow the family’s love for hockey.
“We’d have our practices in town and then we’d go home and just be able to skate out on the rink a little bit,” Pontinen said. “Being able to come home and do that really helped grow our love for the sport.”
Pontinen says his eldest son’s friends and teammates will stop by to skate around. At that point, it’s not even about hockey. The kids create their own games and find their own ways to have fun out on the ice.
“The kids go out there and they just make up games with each other. There’s no rules. The parents aren’t coaching or lecturing, they just get to go out and have fun and be creative.”
Along with his wife Abby, Pontinen says skating is 100% a family affair. Pontinen’s younger kids are just starting their own journey on ice skates with four-year-old Watson recently learning how to skate and three-year-old Quinn recently putting on skates for the first time.
Pontinen knows the memories his children make on the outdoor rink will be valuable, just as the memories he made when he was a kid were.
“My parents had bought an old 1972 Ski-Doo and they would let me drive that up the road, across the tracks in Sparta to the rink with my skates across my lap. Back then we didn’t have our cell phones, but by the end of the night, you’d have 20 of your buddies out there playing hockey. People would just show up and we’d be skating as long as we could.”
Pontinen recalls hockey practice running until around 5 p.m. and then heading straight to the Sparta rink right after.
“Suddenly it was a full rink and it was really something special to be out there just enjoying the game of hockey.”
Getting the rink started each year is all about waiting for the right time. After flooding rinks for about 10 years now, Pontinen says he has a pretty good grasp on the process.
“You gotta flood it out a few times when it starts getting cold. Make sure you’re always brushing the snow off but there’s not much work to do once you establish the ice. Once in a while it gets really cold so you might want to put a fresh flood out there. The nice sunny days won’t really melt it in the winter but it’ll work out the grooves and the cut marks from the skates just kind of go away.”
Maintenance on the rink during the offseason isn’t too demanding, but Pontinen enjoys putting in the work to improve the rink as much as possible.
“It’s just a little brushing of the boards in the summertime,” he said. “We put a fresh coat of paint on them and then this year I went with a liner and that probably gained me a couple weeks of ice time.”
The rink’s warming shack is one of Pontinen’s favorite parts of the entire setup. After building it himself, he slowly started decorating the inside with various hockey memorabilia.
“The inside has Eveleth, Gilbert and Virginia stuff now. There’s even some stuff from the Sparta hockey team too. Things like that make for great conversation pieces. People will come and see it and offer up their own things to include in it. If they say they have a Greenway jersey, I’ll tell them to throw it in the shack. Every little piece just adds to it.”
As the winter rages on and indoor rinks remain closed due to COVID-19, Pontinen can look outside and see Eli and his friends skating, knowing they’re having a good time.
“I’ll just peek out the window every once in a while. I’ll bring him and his friends some Gatorade or water and they’ll just keep skating. They just love it. Our entire family loves it.”
Eveleth-Gilbert head hockey coach Jeff Torrel is one of around a half-dozen people that have been doing their part to keep the Franklin rink in Eveleth going.
Growing up in Eveleth and graduating from Eveleth-Gilbert in 1996, the rink right next to Franklin Elementary School carries a lot of significance for Torrel.
“That’s where I grew up,” Torrel siad. “My buddies were there. We spent our nights there after or before practice. It was just a great place to be, a great place to play hockey and have fun.”
For a time, there was no ice on the Franklin rink. It was one less place for kids to skate in the winter time. Torrel and a few other volunteers decided it needed to make a comeback.
“I wanted the kids to have that opportunity that I had. It didn’t feel right that there was no one taking care of that rink so me and a few other guys got it going again and we’ve been going pretty strong ever since. Now we even have some younger parents involved and committed to keeping it up and running.”
In a year where access to indoor rinks is closed off, keeping the outdoor rinks running smoothly is even more important, according to Torrel.
“It gives the kids something to do. It gets them outside and playing with their friends. The lakes being super clear this year is just awesome. It’s just something you don’t see every year. Having so many options for skating is just great. There’s so many rinks to think of just in Eveleth and the Fayal area and they’re all community-type rinks where people take care of them.
“With kids not being able to be in school every day and not being able to play organized sports, getting them on the ice outside is a great thing. Outdoor rinks are kind of special. There’s no one telling the kids what to do. It’s just about going out and having fun.”
Not having any type of authority in charge of the kids skating on the rink is a huge part of the charm according to Torrel.
“To me, outdoor hockey was always something different. It’s different from practices and games. You go out there and there’s no structure, no parents, no refs. You played games with your friends and there was the pecking order from oldest to youngest and the younger kids had to learn and grow up like the older had to do when they were younger. Once you got out there, you started having fun and you were hooked.”
The mild start to winter was a blessing for outdoor rinks everywhere, according to Torrel. Making sure the weather cooperates is half the battle when it comes to maintaining an outdoor rink.
“We were lucky to not have a lot of snow at the start of winter here. There’s a lot involved with the flooding and making sure the rink can take a beating with kids skating on it all day. There’s a lot involved but making sure those rinks are ready for the kids is important.”
As rinks appear as full as ever, Torrel believes the mild winter also helped drive skaters to the ice and he’s definitely thankful that they’re taking the opportunity.
“We’ve had such great weather so far. Without the warming shacks being open, the kids can still get out and play and not be too cold. You can always find someone out there skating, sometimes more than a dozen kids. It’s pretty cool that we’re still able to keep this going and give the kids something to do.”
“Even in a year like this, I wanted the kids to have the same opportunity I had playing on outdoor ice. It’s just a very special feeling to be out there.”
In a year where traditional indoor skating options are limited, Willie Spelts says the ability to put a rink right on his property on Ely Lake has been a savior for him and his family. Setting up a rink for the second year in a row, Spelts plans to take advantage of the lake every year he can along with his wife Beth and daughter Sydney.
“It’s been amazing to have something like a rink in our backyard.” Spelts said. “It gives us a chance to give the kids something to do. It gets all of us out of the house to shovel it and try to maintain it. Then we get to stay out and skate on it. It’s a fun family thing for us to do.”
Special to lake rinks this year is the clear ice that has formed due to a lack of snowfall when the ice began to solidify. Spelts says it’s hard to describe what it’s like skating on clear ice with the bottom of the lake so clearly visible.
“This is the first time in a long time I’m hearing that the lake froze over before it snowed. With that came the most unbelievably clear ice that lets you see all the way to the bottom. Skating on it for the first time was awesome, just absolutely incredible.”
Possibly in greater numbers than previous years, Spelts says the number of skaters out on the lake appears high, from kids just learning how to skate all the way to veterans skating from Sparta Beach to Ely Lake Beach.
“People are out skating this year as much as they can and it’s just awesome to see. It feels like a big playground out on the lake from kids pulling chairs as they’re just learning to dads pulling their kids and everyone in between. We all just want to skate all day.”
A 1987 graduate of Virginia High School, some of Spelts’ earliest skating and hockey memories came from outdoor rinks growing up on the Range.
“Randy Babiracki and I reminisce all the time about going to the Midway rink. At that time, you’d throw your stick and your skates in your sled and slide all the way down the hill to the rink. When you were old enough, you moved on to the rink with the boards and that felt like a big rite of passage.”
Later, when Spelts’ family moved into Virginia, he found a new outdoor home in the Miners back rink.
“Back then it wasn’t a covered rink. We all went there as much as we could. We’d beg ‘Padge’ to bring the Zamboni out to flood the rink and when he did, it was the best ice ever. Before it was covered, it was just tremendous.
“Then we’d find a way to sneak into the front of the Miners to buy a pop and sneak out and run to the warming shack. We might have broken through some chicken wire on the way but those are the memories you make.”
His daughter now a hockey player, Spelts wants to provide her with the opportunity to make her own memories on the ice every winter.
“I see her out there and it brings me back to when I was her age. You’d just be out skating all day and other kids would show up or their parents would drop them off. You didn’t want to come off the ice but you’d have to hurry into the warming shack for just a bit so you could keep going.
“One of the funny things I noticed when Sydney was out there with one of her friends, Mylee, suddenly people started coming down from all directions to play with them. Maybe they skated there or walked down the road or maybe they four-wheeled. But now they’re just skating and that’s super cool. Everyone comes together to do the same thing and have some fun.”
And when it comes to options for skating outdoors, there is no shortage on the Range.
“There’s Franklin’s rink in Eveleth, Jefferson up on North Side, Ridgewood in Virginia, the Midway rink. West Eveleth has a rink, Fayal has a rink right by the Shortstop. Gilbert and Hoyt Lakes have their own rinks and I’m sure there’s many more I’m forgetting. There are so many options and it’s really great that the volunteers and the cities are keeping the rinks open for kids. This doesn’t happen without them.”
In the end, Spelts wants to encourage everyone, if they can, to get out to an outdoor rink this winter.
“Once people feel safe enough with social distancing and everything, hopefully they find a way to take advantage if they haven’t. This is probably the best year in a long time when it comes to skating outdoors. I think hockey as a sport has started to reinvigorate itself with how the outdoor rinks have been doing lately.
“So hopefully people end up wanting to try it. It’s a safe and fun thing to do and some of my greatest memories have come from these outdoor rinks.”