Growing the game in Luverne has its challenges. It's not just the kids that are newbies. It's the parents, too. The city's first youth hockey program formed in 1977.
"Any of our kids playing hockey here -- a very small percentage of their parents played varsity hockey in Luverne. That's still true today," said Pat Von Tersch, president of Luverne Hockey Club. "When you think about the challenge associated with getting folks excited about playing hockey, especially in the beginning, it's tough. Your parents didn't do it. Your uncles or aunts didn't play. That's a tough transition."
But it's a transition they're gradually finding success in. Von Tersch gets it. He grew up in a small, hockey-less town in west-central Iowa before his career moved him to Luverne. Once he arrived, he could feel the passion and energy from the parents and volunteers within the hockey association.
"What got us excited about hockey when we moved to this community was just friends and referrals," said Von Tersch. "This is something that's god for our kids and something that is fun for families. The camaraderie and all of that is what got us excited and interested in it."
Luverne is bolstering its recruiting efforts at the younger ages. This is the first year they've offered a Learn to Skate program. The Blue Mound Figure Skaters are providing the instruction and Luverne Hockey Club covers the costs of the program for all kids.
Von Tersch's 3-year-old twins are participating in the program.
"We did that from the standpoint that we believe it's important. One night a week, we just focus on technique for our kids," said Von Tersch. "We think that will provide dividends for us going forward just having better skaters throughout our club all the way up to the varsity level."
Luverne Hockey Club is also starting an internal equipment exchange to help keep lower costs for hockey families. The high school coaches, Derrick Brown and Tony Sandbulte, have been heavily involved in player development at all levels.
This year, there are 165 registered youth hockey players in Luverne.
"Once families start, they usually stay in it," said Susan Beers, parent and Luverne Hockey Club marketing director.
Their efforts and success have not gone unnoticed. The Luverne High School boys’ hockey team, which qualified for its first-ever state tournament in 2014, was selected to play against St. Paul Johnson on Hockey Day Minnesota this year at Holman Field in St. Paul on Jan. 17. FOX Sports North aired a feature on the hockey town and its beaming culture.
“The stands were filled with red,” said Von Tersch.
Jaxon Nelson is a standout freshman for the boys’ team. Jaxon burst onto the scene last year, scoring 32 goals and tallying more than 70 points. His star power, along with fellow scoring sensation Chaz Smedsrud, has helped increase the program’s exposure.
Chad Nelson, Jaxon’s father, coaches the Luverne 12U girls’ team, where his daughter plays. The 12U Cardinals would also make the most of the trip, sneaking in a couple games of their own against the St. Paul Johnson/Como 12U girls’ team over the weekend.
“It wasn’t just about the boys,” said Chad Nelson. “It was about everybody in general — girls and the boys. It was a nice deal for the community as a whole.”
Nelson coached Jaxon growing up through the youth system. They always made a concerted effort to get the program’s name out there by traveling to tournaments all over the state.
“We ended up doing a lot of different tournaments just to encourage the growth of Luverne down here because everybody just thinks we’re down in this corner and nobody wants to come down here to play us,” said Nelson. “We ended up traveling out and branching out a little bit to get this group of kids a start. Now they’re somewhat established where in the future here it could be pretty bright.”
It can be difficult for Luverne to get teams to travel, but this can be a road trip players, parents and coaches can remember forever. Former board president Emily Crabtree spearheaded a million-dollar expansion project last year to the beloved Blue Mound Ice Arena, which included a new dryland training area. It has drawn rave reviews.
“We have one of the most beautiful rinks in Southwest Minnesota and even most of those in the metro area,” Nelson said of the facility, which first opened in 1991.
Luverne hockey got its start thanks to the Optimist Club, a fundraising organization that supports youth activities throughout Rock County. The Optimist Club also played a big hand in the recent arena expansion and offer scholarships for skaters.
“We wouldn’t exist without their support,” said Beers.
Luverne hockey has been driven by several key figures, from youth coaches such as Nelson, Paco Erickson and Shane Roberts to founder Dan Smeins, Tim Connell, rink managers Dave and Verlyn Van Batavia and the list goes on.
Rock River flows right through the lovely Luverne, which is one of four towns featured in Ken Burns’ 2007 documentary “The War.” Traditionally known as a basketball powerhouse, Luverne is now seeing a change in identity. Maybe from now on it can be known as a hockey town.
“The trend is definitely towards hockey now,” said Nelson. “And there’s no reason to think that won’t continue.”