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Wadena's Winds of Change

08/23/2011, 2:46pm CDT
By Nancy Pias

Last Summer Mother Nature took their rink but not their hockey spirit

When a devastating tornado roared though Wadena on June 17, 2010, it didn’t take long for news to make it around the globe. Wadena-Deerfield High School boys’ hockey coach Dan Savoie, who happened to be in Finland that fateful day, first heard about it on Russian Syndicated television. Soon he was inundated with emails and videos from friends back home, all trying to come to grips with a seconds-long storm that caused an estimated $35 million in damages.

“It kind of looked like a war zone,” recalls Savoie upon his return. “The skyline didn’t look the same. It didn’t look like Wadena. It still doesn’t look like Wadena.”
 
The first few days left little time to contemplate the state of hockey in this stunned town of 4,000, located two-and-a-half hours northwest of the Twin Cities. Later that month, Savoie and a group of volunteers were finally allowed into the wreckage that had been the Wadena Community Center. Although the hockey arena had been virtually flattened, the Zamboni, compressors and cement floor were relatively untouched. In addition, cranes working at the site were able to lift the toppled north wall of the arena to salvage the players’ benches beneath it. Otherwise, there was little to celebrate.

For Savoie, one of the hardest things to lose was a display of the pucks and stick blades of high school players who had scored their one hundredth goal. Finding scatterings of such remnants was emotional — and vitally important — to the Wolverines coach. In the weeks following the tornado, hockey skates, knee pads and breezers found in nearby woods and fields were returned to the team.

One pair of skates arrived from Bluffton, 15 miles west of town. “Kind of funny,” chuckles Savoie. “It puts your faith back in humanity.”
 
Faith was required in the months ahead as the community grappled with how to rebuild. In the fall, displaced high school students headed to temporary classrooms set up in the elementary school and local technical college. Some doubted there would be hockey in Wadena at all this season — a feeling that was reinforced when a building moratorium put on ice any immediate plans to rebuild the arena. 
 
Savoie, on the other hand, had no such doubts. “We were going to have hockey — period. It wasn’t a choice,” he says. “If we had to play on boots, we would!”
 
By fall, plans were forming to build an outdoor rink in town. Kevin Stevens, who came on board as Wadena Hockey Association president in October, was focused on getting it done. He worried that, without a rink of their own, kids wouldn’t want to stay in town to play hockey. 
 
Even so, some players opted out by the time the season began. “Some 
didn’t want to play outdoors and some went to other associations,” says Stevens, who estimates the youth program lost about one-third of its members this year. 
Entrance to Concession Stands
Families who stuck with it spent hours on the road, traveling to and from practices in neighboring communities that offered ice time. The boys’ and girls’ high school teams took a bus to and from Long Prairie, about 40 miles away, several nights a week. They left from school and returned home after both teams had practiced, generally rolling in around 8:30 p.m.
 
Such sacrifices, made by folks who had sacrificed enough already, further encouraged the hockey community to bring players home as quickly as possible. Plans to simply convert an old outdoor rink adjacent to the Community Center quickly evolved, and soon volunteers began constructing a rink on the salvaged concrete slab that had once served as Wadena’s indoor ice. Savoie calls the fact that the slab and power plant were relatively undamaged, allowing refrigeration under the ice, “quite amazing and fortuitous.” 
 
The donations and support that rolled in proved equally amazing. Volunteers erected boards and glass purchased in Sauk Center, as well as donated rink lights. Krause-Anderson, the construction company hired to rebuild the high school, and local contractor Mark Stone provided job trailers that were converted into warming houses. Restaurants donated proceeds to the cause, and Acs/Arvig Communication System donated money to get the association’s computer systems back up and running to schedule ice time and communicate with other associations. Vending machines were even provided so that chilly spectators and players could enjoy cocoa, soda and snacks at the rink. 
 
After weeks of preparation and anticipation, the rink was finally flooded. Savoie remembers that early December day well, because it was picture day for the team. Players felt strongly that their portrait should be taken at the outdoor rink — forever a reminder of what this season meant to them. Not surprisingly, their coach made it happen. “That first day players showed up in full gear for pictures. It was a gorgeous day,” he recalls. “Their faces were beaming — they looked like little kids again…. like six-foot-four fourth graders!”
Arena Bleachers Entrance
At that moment, Savoie decided the team would no longer travel for practices. “Right then and there it was a no-brainer. We turned the lights on and the moon was out — almost full — and I said, ‘That’s it, practices are going to exclusively be here.'"
 
With the exception of the youngest players, most of the youth teams have also been practicing and playing home games on the rink. An outdoor Mite jamboree is even in the works. It all brings back memories for Stevens, who started playing hockey in Wadena when he was three years old and continued through high school. He played outdoors through his Bantam years — and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “I like the outdoor rink,” he says. “There are more elements that go into play.” 
 
At the same time, Stevens acknowledges that it will be good for Wadena to get its own arena again, hopefully in time for next season. “It will be pretty emotional and very exciting for the community,” he says. “I think some will come back.”
Outside Practice staying warm with hockey socks over their helmets
Savoie is taking it one step at a time. Although the junior varsity and varsity teams have been practicing outdoors, scheduling games on home ice has been challenging. Some opponents do not want to play outdoors, and Wadena has respected those wishes.
 
Finally, on Feb. 3, the Wolverines played their first game on outdoor ice against Detroit Lakes. Mary Krause, whose son Jake is a defenseman on the varsity team, noted the excitement building up to the game. So far this season, the only fans in the stands at far-away rinks had been family members. This was the boys’ first opportunity to play a home game in front of a resilient community willing to brave the elements to cheer on their team.
 
“We’re fired up!” says Krause. “Even if there are no walls, we’re happy to be on home ice.”

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