When the Grand Rapids boy’s high school hockey team takes the ice, there is always a strong contingency of fans wearing orange, and cheering on their hometown team. At home games, 2,500 people or more pack the IRA Civic Center to watch the Thunderhawks.
During away games hundreds, sometimes thousands of fans hit the road to support their local squad. And when Grand Rapids makes it to the Class 2A Section 7 final at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, Minn., it’s normal to see the Thunderhawks and their opponent fill up this college-sized arena. At the younger levels, it’s common to see community members show up, regardless of who is playing.
“We have a fan base that is equal no other school in the state,” said Chris Marinucci, the new Grand Rapids boys’ hockey coach and Grand Rapids Hockey Association board member. “Hockey up here is more like a religion than a sport.”
This year, the Thunderhawks’ rabid fan base was rewarded as Grand Rapids made a miraculous run to the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center and won the school’s first boy’s state championship in 37 years, defeating fellow outstate school Moorhead.
“For these guys to pull that off was really something,” said Marinucci, who was an assistant on the 2016-17 state championship team and took over for the recently-departed Trent Klatt. “It was a deserving accomplishment for a deserving community.”
And while that high school fanbase is at the peak, the trickle down effect to the youth players and association is just as impressive.
As a town with a population of just more than 10,000, Grand Rapids does not necessarily have the talent pool of some of its counterparts. During the 2016-17 season, the association had 411 youth players register. It’s a large number and astounding given the city’s small population.
But despite its limited resources, Marinucci thinks this unique circumstance is something that makes this program special.
“We develop our players and we live and die with the players we develop. I think as a community we are proud of that,” Marinucci said.
While these players are developing individually, they also get the chance to develop chemistry with their teammates. Most players start with the same teammates at 8U and continue with them all the way up to the high school level.
Once these players reach the high school level, they are quick to give back to the community that helped make them the hockey players they are today. Players are often seen helping the younger players on the ice and even let young skaters out on the ice with them after certain varsity home games. The giving-back nature of Grand Rapids is something that is seen throughout the community.
“A lot of coaches and people running it are people that have been through the organization and had that experience,” said Chris Henrichsen, Grand Rapids Youth Hockey Treasurer and youth coach. “We are able to get everybody in the right mindset because of the experience of those within our program.”
“We develop our players and we live and die with the players we develop. I think as a community we are proud of that.”
Despite its size, Grand Rapids has continued to push out some of the State of Hockey’s top talent. The list of successful alumni is astounding and includes the likes of Alex Goligoski, Scot Kleinedorst and Jeff Nielsen. These three NHL players have played at least 250 games at hockey’s highest level and are among 12 Grand Rapids natives who have made it to the big leagues.
This season, a new group of young stars starred for the Thunderhawks. Gavin Hain, Blake McLaughlin and Micah Miller played together on the same line for Grand Rapids’ varsity squad and were key to Grand Rapids’ run to the title. The trio had been together since they were 12 years old and had won the Minnesota Hockey State Tournament Bantam title back in 2014.
Recently, Hain and McLaughlin’s accomplishments were rewarded as the two high school stars got to represent Team USA at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. They also got to represent their country at the 2016 Under-17 Five Nations Tournament.
Marinucci is quick to admit that the success Grand Rapids isn’t always as successful as it was during the 2016-17 season, but it still hasn’t stopped this community from getting out to the local rink and supporting the local teams.
“We have our ups and downs, but we always try to start at a young age and work them until they get to high school. We live and die with what we’ve produced over the years,” Marinucci said.