Improbable on-ice alliance formed to help young hockey players stung by Canadian border closure
On November 30, in this town of about 1000 inhabitants located on the Rivière à la Pluie, a dozen kilometers south of Lake of the Woods, for which the local teams and their school were appointed, a full house of more than 800 was on hand to name Baudette’s new $ 7 million community rink. The game, between Lake of the Woods and neighboring eastern International Falls (60 miles away), has been dubbed the “border battle,” as the two communities are a bridge over the Rainy River far from Canada.
The people of Baudette didn’t know much at the time, but their battle against the border was just beginning.
“We had so much momentum after last year. Just the energy that comes from a high school season, ”said Samantha Lyon, arena director at Baudette. “We hosted the region peewee ‘A’ tournament here. We have had some 60 children, Canadian and American, in our mite and mini mite program, which is the most we have had in a long time.
Then the pandemic struck, the Canadian border was closed to non-essential travel, and the near future of Lake of the Woods hockey was in doubt.
Young Lake of the Woods hockey player Thad Olson held a commemorative puck for the border battle between the Bears and International Falls, which was the first high school game at the new Lake of the Woods International Arena in Baudette, Minnesota , played on November. 30, 2019. Youth hockey photo from Lake of the Woods.
Cooperation with Canada
For two decades, the Baudette-based Youth Hockey Association has been a cooperative arrangement where American children and Canadian children across the Rainy River Bridge, Ontario (population 800), team up to youth and high school hockey. It’s a unique arrangement, blessed by USA Hockey and the Minnesota State High School League, that allows children from two nations to play together.
In small communities like these, the co-op has been a way to ensure full teams and competitive hockey for kids who dream of becoming the next Keith Ballard or Wally Olds or Alex Lyon – Samantha’s younger brother, who played 16 games in goal. for the Philadelphia Flyers over the past three seasons. But with the border closed and its reopening date unknown, the Rainy River has become something akin to the Berlin Wall when it comes to youth hockey.
Each month for the past six months, the Canadian government announced another 30-day border closure extension. It has been devastating for the tourism industry in this area where walleye hunting on the big lake is the reason most people come to visit. By the end of the summer, with no easing of border restrictions in sight and about half of their young hockey players stuck on either side of the bridge, it became clear that 2020-2021 would not be a normal hockey season in Lake Woods County.
“For most of the summer, we were like, ‘Let’s see how it goes,’ like the rest of the world. A big part of our decision making was trying to put our finger on how the whole pandemic would play out, ”Lyon said, noting that another one month extension of the travel ban had been announced this week. “With each expansion, we kind of say, ‘Well, maybe this will open next month.’ But it looks like it won’t be a short-term deal. In mid-August we started to say, “OK, we have to find something different”. “
Associated Press Keith Ballard shows off his new Minnesota Wild jersey after a Friday press conference in St. Paul. The Wild signed a two-year, $ 3 million contract at Ballard on Friday and also re-signed defenseman Jared Spurgeon to a three-year, $ 8 million contract.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
As the people of Minnesota usually do with the Salt of the Earth, they called a neighbor for help when needed. Warroad, 36 miles west of Baudette, has been a civic and ice rival to Baudette and the Bears for generations. It was as if the Packers were asking the Vikings for a helping hand during a difficult time.
After much discussion and permission from Minnesota Hockey, the Warroad hockey community has found a way to help and will allow a dozen or more young Baudette hockey players a one-season transfer, until that international travel restrictions be lifted. Lake of the Woods will always be home to high school, “B” bantam, dust mites and mini-mites teams. Baudette’s squirts and peewees will only be playing Warroad this season.
“We feel terrible for them because they can’t have their own program at these levels,” said Jude Boulianne, who manages The Gardens arena at Warroad and is a member of the community hockey board. “You have to put some city pride aside to help your neighbor, especially in these times. It’s for the kids, giving them the opportunity to play at a level they couldn’t achieve with the numbers they have now.
For about half of the young Lake of the Woods hockey players who reside on the north side of the border, Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey have developed a system where the children of Rainy River can give a similar one-year waiver to play. in Emo, Ontario, which is 35 miles to the east.
It will create challenges. Travel – over 70 miles round trip to practice three or four times a week – is a factor. Suddenly being temporary teammates with your old rivals is another consideration. It’s a role that Lyon herself played 21 years ago, when she was playing boys’ peewee hockey in Baudette and their cooperation with Canadian children began. Their initial combined team practice was memorable.
“The American kids were standing on one side of the red line, and the Canadian kids were standing on the other side of the red line, and it was like that cheesy ‘West Side Story’ dead end between us, like a moment film in our heads, ”she laughs. “Soon after, whatever, we are all working on the same team.”
Short term solution
Due to the lack of a girls’ high school program in Lake of the Woods and other factors, in recent years at least two Baudette area families with children who play hockey have moved to Warroad, including former Minnesota Gophers forward Nick Anthony last summer. With this story in mind, everyone involved stressed the temporary nature of this arrangement.
“A really strong feeling in all of this is that we won’t be sending our kids to Warroad forever,” said Lyon. “It’s a one-year cooperative. Warroad has been gracious enough to be able to accommodate them and they have been very helpful partners in trying to make this happen.
For Baudette players there will be a period of adjustment, as longtime rivals become teammates, at least for a winter.
“I have a few of my friends passing by so I don’t think it’s going to be too terribly bad,” said Taylor Humeniuk, 13, who lives east of Baudette and will be a second-grade peewee. year on the Warroad co-op team. “He’s a very big rival. But I think it will be good to be able to play with some of the people I know a little bit. Their team has pros and cons just like ours, so it will be good to get one big team together.
Taylor’s dad, Rich, said carpools were already organized to help deal with travel to train and play. He admitted that there was some disappointment in spending a season away from their normal teammates due to the border closure, but among many others there is also hope for a good opportunity on the ice cream.
“Anyone can try to make this a decent mid-season,” said Mark Elliott, District 16 manager for Minnesota Hockey. “The folks at Warroad and Baudette are to be applauded for coming together and working together to do something right.”