White Bear Lake was awarded the 2023 edition of Hockey Day Minnesota a year ago, and Ryan Carter recalls a common sentiment from many in the community: “How has it not been here yet?”
This weekend marks the 17th edition of the annual event, with festivities running Thursday through Saturday, and White Bear Lake has been one of the state’s prominent hockey hotbeds for decades.
When White Bear Lake high school boys coach Tim Sager thinks of the hockey scene, “tradition” was the first word that comes to mind. The community is steeped in it.
The boys high school team played in each of the first two state tournaments. It’s home to the White Bear Lake Hippodrome, which opened in 1926 and is one of the oldest operating ice arenas in the country. It’s home to Brian Bonin, who won the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award in 1992 and followed that up by winning the Hobey Baker Award. The program has produced other notable NHL players, including Justin Braun and Carter himself.
Sager stood in the Hippodrome this week and gazed at the photos and banners there, which document the city’s successes in ice hockey.
“There’s just something about the White Bear area that is a hockey community,” said Jon Anderson, an organizer for this year’s event who also played for White Bear Lake before going on to play for the Gophers.
“We’ve had some successes with high school hockey, and we’ve had a strong youth program forever, have had one of the largest youth programs in the area for a long time,” Anderson noted. “I think it’s just something that is in the community that dates back however long. I can’t point one thing at it, but when you think of White Bear and sports, I would say White Bear hockey is the most prevalent sport coming out of the area.”
And while the foundation may be built on history, there are plenty of examples of programs with deep traditions that haven’t maintained White Bear Lake’s prominence. Numbers from the youth program all the way up to the high school level remain strong.
Those in the community cite a couple of factors for the sport’s sustainability. Carter said Bonin set an example for players to live up to. Anderson noted the youth program tabbed a number of non-parent coaches in the late 1990s and early 2000s to get committed people who knew and had a passion for hockey.
“It’s such a different vibe when you have somebody else other than a dad or a mom coaching you,” Anderson said. “There’s just something about that, and you can see it.”
Carter said some of the same coaches he had growing up are still coaching at the same levels within the program, which creates an elite level of stability. Consistency is common in White Bear Lake. Carter’s parents still reside in the house he grew up in.
“A lot of families stay in this community,” Sager said. “A lot of the names are the same.”
But along with that, both Sager and Carter credited the explosion of Hugo — the town to White Bear Lake’s north — with continuing to grow the local hockey community.
“There was land for them to develop and get numbers and kids playing, people coming back,” Carter said. “Without that, I’d be fearful of the future of White Bear hockey.”
Numbers and commitment is a potent combination. There is a consistent, significant investment in the hockey community. Carter noted improvements have been made to local arenas and training facilities, which only helps players to remain competitive and incentivizes them to stick around. Kids grow up loving the black and orange colors and hoping for a chance to don a varsity jersey.
That loyalty extends well beyond their time playing for the program. There is an alumni game this weekend as part of the festivities. Anderson said that had to be capped at 80 skaters, otherwise that event could have grown to as many as 280.
Anderson noted that upon finishing his college career, he immediately came back and coached at the bantam level for seven years.
“It’s a lot of people donating their time to kids to help them out and use their experience. So, it’s just a lot of people keeping this tradition going,” Sager said. “Just a commitment to excellence by everybody involved, hard work, just a buy-in by everybody.”
“It’s a community, and it’s a community inside a community,” Carter said. “The hockey community takes care of each other, they maintain the outdoor rinks, they do a lot of things and they invest their time.”
And that community gets the chance to strut its stuff this weekend, when it takes center stage — finally. In some ways, it’s fitting that White Bear Lake had to wait maybe longer than it should have for this opportunity.
“I feel like we feel like we’re the underdog,” Carter said. “Always good, produce good players, but there’s still something to prove.”
This weekend, that “something” is that White Bear Lake can put on a Hockey Day Minnesota not previously experienced in the prior 16 editions.
“They not only want to put on hockey day,” Carter said, “but they want to put it on in a fashion that people remember and have it be a standard that people hold themselves to.”
Added Anderson: “I feel like we’re going to put on a real good show.”
HOCKEY DAY IN MINNESOTA
A schedule of hockey-related events for Hockey Day in Minnesota starting Thursday in White Bear Lake. All games at Polar Lake Park.
4:30 p.m. — Gates & Town Square Open
5:30 p.m. — Girls hockey: Forest Lake vs Cretin-Derham Hall
7:30 p.m. — Celebrity Game
4:30 p.m. — Gates & Town Square Reopen
5:30 p.m. — Men’s college hockey: St. Johns vs. Augsburg
7:30 p.m. — White Bear Alumni Game
8 a.m. — Gates & Town Square Open
9:30 a.m. — Girls hockey: Stillwater vs. White Bear Lake
1 p.m. — Boys hockey: Hermantown vs. Mahtomedi
4:30 p.m. — Boys hockey: Hill Murray vs. White Bear Lake