Many people with roots in Minnesota have memories of outdoor hockey.
Whether it’s playing hours of brilliant hockey on a freshly frozen lake, or honing skating skills by playing pullaway pom pom – or reigniting the flow of blood through frozen toes in a heated house – these memories can hold a special place in the heart.
For Cambridge-Isanti boys’ hockey coach Jarad Ziebarth, those memories include watching the Cambridge high school hockey team play games on a flooded outdoor rink near the high school specially for this purpose.
“You were right there along the boards, and everything was open,” Ziebarth recalls. “When I watched high school games it was intense because you were part of the action. When the puck was out of play, I was hustling after the puck just like you see kids chasing a foul ball in a baseball game. I keep these dear memories.
Bill Smrekar, the first coach of the Cambridge men’s hockey program, also remembers those days. Even though he’s now winters in Arizona, Smrekar has made it a point to watch this season’s squad via a live internet broadcast.
And he was stunned when the Bluejackets played a pair of outdoor games earlier this season.
“When I watched the away games it brought back so many memories to me,” said Smrekar. “We didn’t have refrigerated ice. We didn’t have plexiglass around the boards. We didn’t have a Zamboni to clean the ice between periods. But we had boys who made memories. And it was worth it.
That’s why Ziebarth has scheduled four “away” games for his Bluejackets this season. Cambridge-Isanti hosted Princeton and St. Francis on the Central Green rink in late January, but freezing temperatures forced CI inside for their game against Henry Sibley in early February.
Even though unusually warm temperatures for the season forced Monday’s March 8 game against North Branch to take place at the Isanti Ice Arena rather than outdoors, the return of outdoor hockey to this region was a success. without reservation.
Smrekar became a Cambridge teacher in 1969 after playing for the Bemidji State hockey team. Soon after arriving, he helped found a youth hockey association, including a Midget team that included high school players from the school.
“It was all the outdoors, games and practices,” Smrekar said of those early midget teams. “But I was from Ely, and all of our games were away. And in my first season at Bemidji, we also played away. Other than the Twin Cities and a few places to the north, there weren’t many arenas. So the outdoor rink was not a big deal.
These early Cambridge teams played on an ice rink just south of the current location of the high school tennis courts. Then the ice rink moved to a location closer to the current bus garage.
One of the things Smrekar remembers from those early rinks was the great support from the students and the community the team received.
“We would have people standing two or three deep in the snow banks around the boards,” he said. “When we played games in high school, we had to put a rope 3 feet behind the boards. This way the spectators would not interfere with the players.
The school did not formally create a high school team until the 1981-1982 season – and made the team despite not having an indoor arena to house it. It helped that Princeton opened up their arena at that point, giving the Bluejackets an inside option.
“We had ice time there a few times a week,” Smrekar said. “But most of our practice was outdoors and we played away games as well, although there were games where Princeton was our ‘home’ rink.”
As Princeton’s youth hockey programs developed, the Cambridge hockey team was eventually kicked out of the building and forced to use the Mora Arena.
“I was the bus driver for all the training,” said Smrekar, who coached the team from its inception until his retirement in 2002. “It wasn’t easy – I thank the children and their parents. for their commitment to sport. We had to take the bus 30 minutes [each way], and we would only have an hour of ice time.
Ziebarth, a Cambridge graduate in 1994, was fortunate enough to experience outdoor hockey in high school.
“We had some outdoor practice because we didn’t have an arena,” he explained. “We’re in the situation that North Branch is in now, in that we had to go to someone else’s rink to practice. So we trained early in the morning or late at night.
When Isanti opened his arena in January 1998, this issue was resolved. But the memories remain.
While playing games outside may seem like a thing of the past, Ziebarth said the idea is starting to make a comeback.
“A lot of kids watch the NHL sponsored Winter Classics,” he said. “And Hockey Day in Minnesota was also an away game. “
Ziebarth considered creating a “show” game for his program, and his mind quickly turned to the Rusty Skates Trophy, a traveling trophy that is presented to the winner of contests between CI and nearby Princeton.
“Growing up I remember seeing how important the Rusty Skates Trophy was to our guys,” Ziebarth said. “So I called Princeton coach Todd Frederick and said, ‘Let’s make Rusty Skates a big deal again. And right away he was on board with it.
The original plan was to play the game away from home, but it has evolved into a lot more. The plan was to erect party tents and food trucks would be asked to feed spectators.
Then, of course, COVID-19 ruined those plans – except for the part about playing outside.
“There were questions as to whether we would be allowed to have spectators on the rinks,” Ziebarth said. “I realized that parents were going to go crazy if they couldn’t see their sons playing. So I wanted to have as many outdoor games as possible.
“When I called the coaches and said, ‘Let’s play away,’ I was happy with the number of people who said yes. Besides Princeton, Tyler Schaff in St. Francis, Ted Cheesebrough in Henry Sibley, and Jacob Mars in North Branch all said yes. I thank these coaches for recognizing how children are starting to embrace the idea of playing games outside. “
This support was far from a slam dunk, as hockey is a different sport when played outdoors.
“It all depends on the weather,” Smrekar said. “If the temperature was below 10, we would cancel the game. During a game, if the children needed to go to a heated house, we would let them go. And when it was snowing, we had to shovel the lines so that those responsible could see them. “
Cambridge-Isanti senior defenseman Tyler Haupert said the biggest difference he noticed in away games was the condition of the ice.
“It is more difficult to keep [the ice] as pleasant as you can inside, ”he said. “So it changes the way you play. You have to play a more gritty style, as it is difficult to play a finesse and neck style without clean ice.
But outdoor hockey is more than a unique environment.
When Haupert and his teammates took to the ice for games against Princeton and St. Francis, they knew they were tasting a bit of history.
“I think all the boys were eager to play some outdoor game,” he said. “It brings back a lot of history, and we realized it would be an extraordinary experience.
“I kind of knew how well they had played away in the past. But it was different to go through it yourself. I gained some respect for them by playing away. Our toes were freezing and we had a locker room to go to. We have also gained an appreciation for everything we have, such as a nice ice rink for playing and training. “
Even though Ziebarth wasn’t on the ice for both games – his team beat Princeton 2-1 before eliminating St. Francis 3-1 – he could sense the energy that the outdoor games produced.
“Playing games outside is just different,” he said. “You can feel the energy from your head to your feet. Everything about it is just exciting.
But Ziebarth has said he most enjoys watching his team appreciate the sacrifices players have made in the past for the sport, and Smrekar has been touched by that as well.
“It’s great to hear that these young players appreciate the sacrifices they made 40 years ago,” said Smrekar. “These kids of 40 years ago really led the way.”
Ziebarth was grateful for the support he received in bringing the outdoor games to life.
“I give credit to [Activities Director Mark] Solberg and [Principal Steve] Gibbs for being very supportive of the idea, ”Ziebarth said. “I also thank our parents, who really supported everything we did.”
Ziebarth also said the city of Cambridge deserves credit for creating a playable ice rink in Central Green.
“Everyone in the city has done a lot of work to make it happen, and we really appreciate their support,” he said. “[Assistant Public Works Director] Lucas Milz was just phenomenal with the preparations he took to make this the best experience for our children. And I know that many municipal workers have contributed to its realization, and we appreciate all this work. “