White Bear Lake was honored with the 2023 edition of Hockey Day Minnesota a year ago, and Ryan Carter recalls a shared sentiment from many in the community: “Why wasn’t it?”
This weekend marks the 17th edition of the annual event, with celebrations Thursday through Saturday, and White Bear Lake has been one of the state’s most prominent hockey hotspots for decades.
When Tim Sager, coach of the White Bear Lake high school boys, thinks of the hockey scene, “tradition” is the first word that springs to mind. The community is shaped by it.
The boys high school team played in each of the first two state tournaments. Home to the White Bear Lake Hippodrome, which opened in 1926 and is one of the oldest operating ice arenas in the country. It is the home of Brian Bonin, who won the 1992 Minnesota Mr. Hockey Award and subsequently the Hobey Baker Award. The program has produced other notable NHL players, including Justin Braun and Carter himself.
Sager stood at the Hippodrome this week, admiring the photos and banners documenting the city’s hockey successes.
“There’s just something of a hockey community about the White Bear area,” said Jon Anderson, an organizer for this year’s event, who also played for White Bear Lake before playing for the Gophers.
“We’ve had some success with high school hockey, and we’ve always had a strong youth program, we’ve had one of the biggest youth programs in the area for a long time,” Anderson noted. “I think it’s just something in the community that’s been so long gone. I can’t point that out, but if you think of White Bear and sports, I would say that White Bear Hockey is the most prevalent sport to come out of the area.
And while the foundation may be built on history, there are many examples of programs with deep traditions that have failed to sustain White Bear Lake’s prominence. Numbers from the youth program through high school remain strong.
The members of the community name a few factors for the sustainability of the sport. Carter said Bonin is an example for players to live up to. Anderson noted that in the late 1990s and early 2000s the youth program had selected a number of non-parent coaches to attract dedicated people who knew and had a passion for hockey.
“It’s such a different vibe when someone other than a dad or mom is coaching you,” Anderson said. “There’s just something there, and you can see it.”
Carter said some of the same coaches he grew up still coach at the same levels within the program, creating an elite level of stability. Consistency is common at White Bear Lake. Carter’s parents still live in the house he grew up in.
“A lot of families stay in this community,” Sager said. “Many names are the same”
But at the same time, both Sager and Carter credited the explosion of Hugo — the town north of White Bear Lake — with the continued growth of the local hockey community.
“There was land for them to develop and get numbers and kids to play, people came back,” Carter said. “Without that, I would be scared of the future of white bear hockey.”
Numbers and commitment are a powerful combination. There is an ongoing, significant investment in the hockey community. Carter noted that improvements have been made to local arenas and training facilities, which only helps players stay competitive and encourages them to stick around. Kids grow up loving the colors black and orange and hoping for a chance to don a college jersey.
That loyalty extends well beyond their time playing for the program. As part of the celebrations, there will be an alumni game this weekend. Anderson said the number had to be capped at 80 skaters, otherwise this event could have grown to as many as 280.
Anderson noted that after completing his college career, he immediately came back and trained at the bantam level for seven years.
“Many people give their time to children to help them and use their experiences. So it’s just a lot of people keeping this tradition going,” Sager said. “Just a commitment to excellence from everyone involved, hard work, just a buy-in from everyone.”
“It’s a community, and it’s a community within a community,” Carter said. “The hockey community takes care of each other, they maintain the grounds, they do a lot of things, and they invest their time.”
And that community is getting a chance to show themselves when they’re the center of attention this weekend—finally. In a way, it’s fitting that White Bear Lake may have had to wait longer than necessary for this opportunity.
“I feel like we feel like outsiders,” Carter said. “Always good, bring forth good players, but there is still something to prove.”
That “something” this weekend is White Bear Lake being able to host a Hockey Day Minnesota, which hasn’t happened in the previous 16 editions.
“They don’t just want to host hockey day,” Carter said, “they want to host it in a way that people will remember and make it a standard that people will adhere to.”
Anderson added, “I have a feeling we’re going to put on a really good show.”
HOCKEY DAY IN MINNESOTA
A schedule of hockey-related events for Minnesota’s Hockey Day, which begins Thursday in White Bear Lake. All games at Polar Lake Park.
4:30 p.m. – Gates and market square open
5:30 p.m. – Girls Hockey: Forest Lake v Cretin-Derham Hall
7:30pm – Celebrity Game
4:30pm – Reopening of the gates and marketplace
5:30 p.m. – Men’s College Hockey: St. Johns vs. Augsburg
7:30pm – White Bear Alumni Game
8 a.m. – Gates and market square open
9:30 am – Girls Hockey: Stillwater vs. White Bear Lake
1pm – Boys Hockey: Hermantown vs. Mahtomedi
4:30 p.m. – Boys Hockey: Hill Murray vs. White Bear Lake