20 boys try to resurrect Minneapolis' hockey glory

Minneapolis Hockey: A squad without a nickname, yet united in the goal of returning the program to relevance.

Minneapolis Hockey: A squad without a nickname, yet united in the goal of returning the program to relevance.

"Brutal!" barks assistant coach Garet Chumley.

Young men with long faces and stink fill the locker room inside Parade Ice Arena. With one period complete, the Minneapolis boys' high school hockey team is down by three goals to Providence Academy, a Plymouth prep school with just four wins on the season.

"Do you guys realize you represent the richest hockey tradition in the whole state?" asks Chumley. "Olympians and Stanley Cup winners played here and right now you're an embarrassment!"

Chumley and his death stare exit the room, leaving agitated silence to linger.

"Forget everybody else!" a player suddenly yells. "We gotta do this for us!"

This is how it begins, again.

Fourteen-old-year forward Jake Hale is already a grizzled veteran of being courted by other high school hockey programs.

Fourteen-old-year forward Jake Hale is already a grizzled veteran of being courted by other high school hockey programs.

These 20 players are the vestiges of what was once mighty. They compose the last public high school hockey team in Minneapolis.

They're a distant cry from the city's heyday, when as many as 10 teams played in arenas choked with fans, producing players who'd become titans of hockey.

Call it death by demographics. Young families took flight to the suburbs, to be replaced by kidless professionals and immigrants with no affinity for the game. The number of players declined, with the best leaving for private schools.

Over a quarter-century, Minneapolis was forced to kill off its high school teams one by one, until all that remain are these 20 boys, a team pulled from three of the city's seven high schools.

These days, Minneapolis doesn't have cheerleaders or a pep band. It doesn't even have a nickname. It's just Minneapolis Hockey, with players too young to remember the last time a city team made the state tournament two decades ago.

But a coach with a household name believes it's time to change this. His assignment: to resurrect a tradition from the rubble of a once proud, but nearly forgotten one.

Meet the survivors

The fellas are feeling good. Some shut their eyes, summoning confidence. Others bounce nervous knees.

Two nights earlier, Minneapolis Hockey defeated St. Cloud Tech. Tonight they'll play host to St. Paul Johnson, an equally storied program eroded by the same problems facing Minneapolis, only multiplied by the encroaching poverty of the East Side.

Tonight's healthy crowd at Parade includes dozens of kids wearing their youth jerseys. Johnson is not here to please them. The Governors are bigger and meaner, playing an old-time brand of high elbows and late hits.

Minneapolis responds in kind, but this is not their game. By the time 5'9" freshman Jake Hale bounces off a towering Johnson defenseman, it's obvious that frustration has overtaken them. The fun is done in the second period, with Johnson up 4-0.

Head coach Joe Dziedzic knows from personal experience how things can unravel in a moment.

In 1999, Dziedzic was playing for the Springfield Falcons, a minor-league affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes. Syracuse defenseman Peter Allen inadvertently ploughed a thumb into Dziedzic's eye, fast-tracking his career to retirement.

"Between eye doctors warning me I shouldn't play anymore and my agent saying there was nobody beating down the door to sign me, I'm like, 'Holy shit! This is the end of it,'" says Dziedzic.

Four years at the University of Minnesota followed by five more in the pros — including two with the Pittsburgh Penguins — ended with a detached retina.


He was 28.

Conscripted into retirement, the 1990 Mr. Hockey winner at Edison High stayed connected by coaching and working camps.

One winter night, he was skating in a pickup game at Parade with his childhood buddies. On the adjacent rink, a game was in progress. One of Minneapolis' remaining high school teams was playing.

"There were guys running around just trying to hit and play cheap," Dziedzic remembers. "Nobody was making plays. Nobody's passing. It's just dump the puck in. Dump the puck out. Go run a guy. I'd heard it was bad hockey. This was garbage."

But the stories of demise didn't do reality justice. The more Dziedzic watched, the more it dragged him down.

During his playing days, Edison's battles against Southwest and Washburn were akin to tribal wars played before fired-up crowds.

His Tommies weren't the most skilled, but they were lionhearted. Southwest was the rich kids who could skate, Washburn the same, though to a lesser extent.


He'll never forget the night Edison beat Washburn for the first time in 42 years. The victory over Southwest, Edison's first in a half-century, was even sweeter.

In the 1980s, the top lines on Minneapolis' best teams could still match up against suburban powers like Bloomington Kennedy and Jefferson.

Yet now it had come to this: Goons who could barely pass were slandering Dziedzic's memories, with a crowd numbering mere dozens looking on.

"I'd been told hockey in Minneapolis had suffered because the number of kids playing had gone way down and that the good players weren't sticking around," he says. "By the time they were in junior high, those players who weren't already at private schools and were decent were leaving Minneapolis. What it had become was if you were decent, you didn't stick around Minneapolis hockey. It was kind of for the leftovers."

That was 15 years ago.

When chicken wire was king

By the time women were given the right to vote in 1920, the four-team Minneapolis High School Hockey conference had been in existence for a decade. Roosevelt High was built in 1923. Washburn came two years later. Henry and Southwest opened before World War II.

Over the coming decades, neighborhood boys exploited winters on the city's network of outdoor rinks. Roosevelt defenseman Mike Ramsey was the youngest member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, which won a gold medal. He was preceded by defenseman Reed Larson, who became an All-Star for the Detroit Red Wings.

Head coach Joe Dziedzic

Head coach Joe Dziedzic

Legendary Gophers coach Herb Brooks mined Minneapolis for players who'd become NCAA champions, like Southwest goalie Brad Shelstad, who'd won the Minnesota state championship in 1970.

It remains Minneapolis' last.

Fans funneled into the 10,000-seat Minneapolis Auditorium on Second Avenue South, where the convention center now stands. Chicken wire girdled the boards. Thousands of spectators gathered for triple-headers between the city's teams.

Larson remembers 10 Minneapolis teams playing in the late 1960s. By 1987, when Southwest's Tom Chorske was crowned Minnesota's inaugural Mr. Hockey, the city held but seven.  

Urban schools had descended into chaos. Or so parents believed. Young families moved to Burnsville and Bloomington, Minnetonka and Edina, where the schools were better and shiny arenas waited. Those who stayed behind often opted for private schools.

"I didn't have a choice about where I was going to high school," says Erin Martin, whose son Ryan now plays goalie for Minneapolis. "Based on where we lived I would have gone to Washburn, but my parents said I would go to Holy Angels because at that time, Washburn wasn't a good place to go to school."

Martin's story speaks for generations. At the same time young families took flight, the city's makeup was shifting toward immigrants, to whom hockey was an exotic, alien affair.

In 1950, Minneapolis' population topped out at more than 500,000. Nine out of 10 were white.

By 1990, Minneapolis had lost more than 100,000 residents. They would begin to be replaced, but often in the form of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. At Roosevelt, for example, minorities now compose about 80 percent of the student body.

"Minneapolis' situation is a lot like ours," says Johnson coach Moose Younghans. "The people staying had kids move out years ago, lots of them moving out to where there's new building. The people who've moved in have changed the dynamics of the neighborhoods, and in my experience, they don't play hockey."

In 1989, the Minneapolis Auditorium fell to the wrecking ball. High school games moved to Augsburg, where pep bands, cheerleaders, and students festooned back-to-back-to-back contests.

"There was a buzz you could feel inside the arena," says Dziedzic. "People were passionate about it. As a player, you knew how important it was, how much pride people had in it. You took that seriously and it made for playing against the other city conference teams in front of lots of passionate fans fun as hell."

In 1990, Dziedzic won a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota. He remains the last Minneapolis public school player to earn a Division I hockey scholarship.

A reluctant son signs on

Three years ago, Dziedzic parted ways with St. Paul Academy, where he'd coached the team to a 24-38-5 record. By this time, Minneapolis was down to just one team. And it was looking for a coach.

Mike Shogren, a longtime booster, made a beeline for Dziedzic's ear.

"When he first offered me the job, I was like, 'Mike, dude, this is pretty bad.' But I listened to what he had to say."

The city's youth hockey was in the midst of a resurrection, Shogren told him. The nonprofit Minneapolis Storm boasted almost 800 boys and girls, ranging from tykes to teens. The immediate struggles at the high school level couldn't be remedied, he knew, but the future's feeder system had already been seeded.

Shogren hammered away at the growing numbers. He promised Dziedzic a hand in molding the kids, affording him the chance to run clinics and establish relationships with players at a young age.

"I told him here's your opportunity in your hometown," says Shogren. "It's one thing to be a head coach. It's another to be the one to rebuild your hometown program."

Dziedzic was intrigued but not sold. Building up Minneapolis' participation was one thing. Slowing the hemorrhaging of top talent was another.

"I knew if you don't have any good players, it's tough to be a good coach because you're not going to win," he says. "To build a winning tradition, to have a winning culture, I had to find a way to help develop and keep good players. A relationship with every one of the players, that's how I was going to turn this around."

His boyhood connection finally won out.

The enormity of the task became evident the day he picked up the equipment. Dziedzic cleared his SUV to make room for boxes of gloves, helmets, and jerseys.

But just one box awaited him. It contained 24 rolls of tape.

"Where's the rest?" Dziedzic asked. "Like the gloves and the helmets, socks, practice jerseys, any of that stuff?"

That's all of it, the man said.

The Bad News Bears on ice

Player cuts weren't necessary in the weeks leading up to his inaugural season. Thirty-four skaters and four goalies were just enough to fill JV and varsity rosters.

"We had two, maybe three guys at best who could play," says Dziedzic. "For the rest it was teaching them stuff you shouldn't have to at this level, like passing the puck to the open guy in front of you because that's the right way to play. Good high school teams don't have to teach their players those things."

The previous season had ended with a 12-0 playoff pummeling, courtesy of Minnetonka. There was nowhere to turn but upward.

The team rang up 20 wins. Many were lopsided victories against the likes of Moose Lake and North Branch, teams from outpost schools with tiny enrollment and not so much as a burp of hockey tradition. Where Minneapolis stood in the food chain was better revealed by the losses.

Holy Family and Blake waxed them 9-2 and 7-1, respectively. Minnetonka would again end their season in the playoffs, bombing Minneapolis 8-0.

Assistant coach Drew Palmer understood the task at hand.

"It wasn't easy signing up for it after Joe approached me to be an assistant," he says. "It wasn't a homerun job. But I'll never forget what Joe said: 'You know, Drew, anyone can coach a good team, but it's difficult to coach a challenging one.'

"In some ways it is a kind of The Bad New Bears story. It was down for a long time, so it's not going to be turned around overnight. But we believe in it. Therefore, we're fighting for it."

One of the first orders of business was regaining some self-respect. Dziedzic began to eliminate the long bus rides up 35W to play outlier cream puffs, scheduling games against the better metro teams instead.

Something also had to be done about the team's name, the Novas. The image of a bursting star that eventually fades to its original modesty didn't fit the manliness requirements of hockey.

"I hated the name," Dziedzic says. "I was like, 'It's for pussies. It's a chick name.'"

He petitioned the Minneapolis School Board to adopt the Storm name and colors, providing continuity from tyke to high school. But there were other youth programs in the city. One couldn't be placed above the others.

Dziedzic emerged with a small win. He could ditch the Novas, but couldn't replace it with something else.

They'd simply be called Minneapolis Hockey.

"Building this into a successful program isn't just about winning more hockey games," Palmer says. "A

 big part of it has to be rebranding. With a new attitude, a new culture, Joe felt, and I couldn't agree more, there needed to be a new image."

Yet the struggles remained. At tryouts the following year, a half-dozen players could barely skate.

"I'm like, 'Come on! You guys don't even play hockey,'" says Dziedzic. "'Get off the ice before you get hurt.'"

At the same time, something was changing. The team might not be the most skilled on any given night, but the players battled.

Confirmation came one year ago. Minneapolis played Holy Angels, where a third of the roster was composed of city players who'd fled to the private school.

Roughing penalties filled the box score. Minneapolis lost, 4-2, but it was by far their best game of the year.

"We played with a chip on our shoulder," says forward Garrett Lieb. "Minneapolis Hockey was no longer the place where you played when you had no better choice."

Taking a knee

The challenge before Dziedzic and his coaches is now convincing young players that Minneapolis is the choice.

While it was once a no-brainer to play elsewhere, many families are reconsidering, Shogren believes.

"You can just see how the kids enjoy playing with their friends and want to stay together," he says. "We always knew we'd lose some to private schools once they reached ninth grade. But that was more a decision based on academics [made] years ago than a hockey one now. What we wanted to stop was losing all our kids to these schools."

Tom Saterdalen amassed more than 500 wins and five state titles as Bloomington Jefferson's coach. He sees parallels between Dziedzic's challenges and what he faced upon arrival in Bloomington in 1973.

"I had to start with the youth, the youngest kids there. I started getting the six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds involved," says Saterdalen. "You show up to their practices, they see you there with all this passion you have for your program, and you start to develop that loyalty. You do that and once they get age 12, 13, or 14, the more players you're going to have.... For Minneapolis to rebuild its program, Joe's got to show his heart is there in Minneapolis."

Dziedzic borrowed a page from Saterdalen's playbook two nights before Christmas. During the first intermission of a game against St. Louis Park, Storm six-year-olds entertained the crowd. Instead of heading for the locker room to rest, the high school team took a knee along the blue lines and cheered. The horn sounded, the Zamboni doors opened, and the kids slapped high fives with the lines of varsity players as they skated off the ice.

"I always think a good coach with a reason to build a program is a great thing," says Shogren. "Could we survive without Joe? Sure. But why would we want someone that's not Joe?"

All in the family

In January, Minneapolis arrived on St. Paul's east side for a rematch with Johnson. After being badly outmuscled on their home ice two months earlier, Minneapolis played smart and tight, taking over with superior conditioning as the game wore on. It ended in a 0-0 tie, but it was still a victory.

Jake Hale offered up a proud smile as the buzzer sounded.

The 14-year-old has received unsolicited invitations to play elsewhere, rattling off the names of public and private schools whose players have approached him.

"It makes you feel at one point honored, but a little bit confused," says Hale. "I don't want to leave my city and turn my back on Minneapolis."

Hale's dad, Todd, played at Southwest. Brother Zack attended Benilde.

"I went into it thinking the premier private school was going to give [Zack] potentially better hockey opportunities in the future," Todd says. "In hindsight, I wish I wouldn't have.... The best way to describe it is as a cutthroat mentality that some of these real top programs have. It's win at all costs. You produce or go to the side and it's next guy up."

Zack now plays Division III hockey at Colby College in Maine.

Todd has witnessed seismic changes inside the city since Zack came up. It used to be that "90 to 95 percent" of Minneapolis kids would leave for private school. That flight has noticeably lightened.

"People are seeing Minneapolis Hockey is actually moving forward, which won't stop everyone from leaving, but it's certainly making the decision to go somewhere else harder," says assistant coach Palmer. "The survival and hopefully greater success for us is keeping enough good kids, good players here. If we have groups of them growing up and having fun playing hockey together, that kind of loyalty can be hard to compete against."

Jake Hale already owns it. Before he broke his collarbone in December, the freshman was Minneapolis' top scoring threat. Weeks of rehab stand before his return to the ice. But come November, the Southwest student will return to the team.

"I'm staying because I want to represent the players of this city," he says. "Obviously, the number-one thing is having fun. There's also got to be winning because it shows Minneapolis can be a great place to play hockey and develop as a player.

"There's about four or five of us on the team now who grew up playing together. To me, Minneapolis Hockey is more of a family than it is a team."