ELK RIVER, Minn. (WCCO) – The act of embracing winter is what makes living in Minnesota bearable. And for many, it means standing alongside an outdoor hockey rink.
Thousands of folks are doing just that in Elk River this week, site of the 2014 Hockey Day in Minnesota events.
The city was chosen in large part due to the historic Handke Stadium, where organized hockey began in Elk River nearly 60 years ago.
Earlier this week, a soft evening snowfall painted a Rockwell-like feel over the historic stadium. Against the backdrop of a girls’ youth hockey game, kids laughed and screamed as they slid down the snowy hillside.
Bruce “Nails” Schmidt, a former Elks hockey player, says the stadium was an important part of his childhood.
“Growing up and playing down here was fabulous because … you could always count on having ice, it wasn’t too far to walk,” Schmidt said.
For generations of kids like Schmidt and Larry “Grub” Thomas, the glacially-formed hole in the earth has always been their playground.
“It was just a short walk or bike ride down here to where all the cool kids were,” Thomas said.
It seems like everyone you meet in Elk River has a unique – if not creative – nickname, as both Nails and Grub will quickly attest.
But it’s not just the people who bear the nicknames. For years, Elk River residents have affectionately called Handke Stadium “The Pit.”
Residents aren’t sure what stadium-namesake Robert Handke would make of it of the nickname. Handke was the superintendent of Elk River schools for a quarter century.
Regardless of its name, the stadium actually began as pond, described as a water and muck-filled depression in the otherwise flat terrain.
It was drained and filled in the 1920’s after many complaints from angry parents of kids who fell through the pond ice.
Draining it would allow for recreational use year round. It was the site of high school football games, baseball in the spring and summer months and ice skating and sledding in the wintertime.
“This was like in the center of the old town,” Thomas said. “And it was a small town’s version of New York City’s Central Park.”
But its real treasure grew from the Great Depression. In the mid 1930’s, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Projects Administration.
The WPA was tasked with putting the nation’s unemployed back to work with various public works projects.
Elk River benefited from the project as workers spent months lining walls, walks and hillsides with river rock. To this day, it’s the state’s only warming house made entirely of stone.
In later years, the stadium was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Walter Schumacher, Elk River’s first high school hockey coach, says the Pit wasn’t hard to miss while passing through town.
“You could drive down the street coming up Main Street and you wouldn’t even know it was there, unless you got out of the car and looked down,” Schumacher said.
In 1956, Schumacher coached a group of eager and determined hockey players, who were forced to wear borrowed football jerseys. But the struggling youth program never looked back.
“And it was scratch too, believe me. We didn’t have a game, we just practice, practice, practice,” he said.
Without helmets or masks back in the early days, players learned to get out of the way of flying pucks, or faced the bloody and painful consequences.
“Those kids never had anything on their face. They were nothing but lacerations and stitch marks,” he said. “I think they were proud of ’em, you know.”
Out of that toughness and determination grew a town rich in a hockey tradition that’s now worth celebrating.
Hockey Day in Minnesota will feature the historic stadium and the generations of skaters and players, parents and coaches who love the game.