Minnesotans tend to be a little old school when it comes to hockey.
Just ask the three Poehling brothers—Jack, Nick and Ryan. Their mom, Kris, brought them out to the middle of the family’s backyard rink when they were youngsters. The only way off … was to skate.
And learned to skate they did.
Despite the fruitless efforts to cry for the easy way out, the trio became quite fond of the ice and went on to entertain the family throughout their youth in the Lakeville Hockey Association. After that, they dazzled the entire state of Minnesota with stellar play at Lakeville North High School. And now, they are on the national stage playing Division-I college hockey for Bob Motzko at St. Cloud State.
Ryan is two years younger than his twin brothers, Jack and Nick. But that didn’t stop him from playing two seasons of high school hockey together.
Ryan recalled one of his fondest memories from the 2014 state tournament quarterfinal against Roseau, when the brothers connected for the game-tying goal.
“It was my freshman year. Jack, Nick and I were playing on the same line the entire year,” said Ryan. “I remember Nick had the puck, he was getting hacked quite a bit so he gave it to me on the far left side, and then I faked the shot to pass it over to Jack and he put it in.”
The Panthers went on to beat Roseau 2-1 in overtime before besting Eden Prairie in double-overtime to reach the finals. In the title game, however, Edina delivered a punishing 8-2 defeat for the crown.
It was a tough loss, but it served as a catalyst. The following year, Lakeville North won the state championship, capping an undefeated 28-0 season—a lifelong dream come true.
Moments like this personify the spoken tradition of hockey in Minnesota. A tradition that envelops likeminded lovers of the sport just as each of the 10,000 lakes brings the opportunity to welcome it.
"Growing up, we would always go to the state tournament, and so I would always dream about playing in it, let alone winning it," said Jack. "When it finally happened I realized my parents instilled in me the appreciation there was in winning it."
Jack and Nick Poehling both played one year for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL after graduating high school. Ryan, a very rare case of talent, accelerated his studies at Lakeville North and graduated a year early.
With the loss of so many players to graduating, St. Cloud was in need of a center. By accelerating his studies Ryan was able to join his brothers at St. Cloud. Ryan was the 14th overall North American Skater in the NHL Central Scouting Service’s midterm rankings.
But they have a message for kids looking to move up too quickly.
“Don’t rush it,” said Jack. “… You don’t need to leave early. I think a good piece of advice is staying your course. Don’t rush it but enjoy it while everything is going on.”
Jack warns against the fear of falling behind or succumbing to the mentality that, in order to go pro or play college hockey, you have to move up or leave high school early. If a player is good enough, he or she will get noticed.
Ryan wants kids to just enjoy the process and keep working hard. Everyone develops at their own pace.
“Look at our team, I’m 18 years old and a freshman but there are also 21-year-old freshmen, so I mean, it just shows that there is no right or wrong path,” Ryan said. “To the younger kids I say … if things aren’t going how they should, just keep at it and trust yourself.”
It’s clear to the Poehlings that, if you have the ability to reach the next level, NCAA college hockey is the way to go.
“I believe the college route is better because you are playing for something,” said Jack. “Here, you are getting an education—there is a backup plan. And I personally think the whole college atmosphere is better for development both on and off the ice.”
“You are here for four years with people that will end up being your best friends and don’t have to worry about being traded,” Nick added. “Nothing will ever beat college hockey.”
Results from the 2017 IIHF World Juniors back up Jack’s claims that the college route is paying dividends in the development of future NHL players. Out of the 23 roster spots for Team USA, 20 players play college hockey—and they won the gold medal.
From the backyard rink to state tourney folklore and now the Granite City, the Poehling brothers have spent most of their lives together. But there’s another younger brother, Luke, who’s playing for the Lakeville North Peewee AA team this season. It’s safe to say they feed off each other.
“All four of us are super competitive, and it's fun," said Nick. "When we were younger playing ice hockey or street hockey we would never take it easy on each other. I think that ended helping us out in the long run. It never gets too serious, sometimes it does but we solve that right away.”
No matter what happens, their love for the game will never waver, and they hope more and more kids can enter the sport and have similar experiences.
“I think competing or coming out and giving your best every night is one of the most fun parts about playing hockey,” said Nick. “Once you are competing, that is when you are at your best, also loving the game the most.”