Jan. 23—MANKATO — Thousands turned out for Hockey Day Minnesota on Saturday to watch a slate of games on an outdoor rink, enjoy an outdoor village of food vendors and fire pits, and take refuge in the warmth of a massive tent where live music capped off the evening.
"I'm impressed with the warming tent and the fire pits and all the facilities," said Val Altendorfer, who with her husband Tim was taking in a day of hockey games. The Faribault couple, who are huge Wild fans, attended a Hockey Day in Duluth years ago and said the Mankato event had built upon the tradition with additions such as live music and more amenities and events.
The temperatures moderated to the low teens after a week of bitter cold, and the late afternoon brought the start of a few inches of snow during the Minnesota State University Mavericks game.
Hockey Day, at MSU's Blakeslee Stadium, kicked off with a bang Saturday morning. The Warriors hockey team, made up of wounded veterans, unfurled a massive U.S. flag for a flag ceremony. The opening ceremonies included a flyover by the Minnesota State University aviation team, with assistance from North Star Aviation.
Tim Altendorfer played hockey growing up in Hastings and coached bantam hockey for years. He said watching Saturday's games on an outdoor rink was the epitome of hockey.
"When I played we played outside. We didn't have indoor games. We practiced on lakes or golf course ponds."
Michael Gilmore of Apple Valley was with his son Weston, 4, inside one of the many tents lining the hockey village, taking his turn at playing a "hockey knockout" game, where people slapped hockey pucks at a screen to score as many points as possible in a limited time.
He'd attended a Hockey Day a couple of years ago and said the Mankato organizers did a good job on their inaugural event. "This one is great."
MSU college junior Mevaeh Braucks and her friend Kate Woeste, both from the St. Cloud area, were warming up around one of the fire pits between games. Braucks attended her first hockey game when she came to MSU and was hooked.
"I'm a big hockey fan. I've gone to all the Mavs games since I came to MSU. It's so full of energy and lets me get my aggression out watching it," she said with a laugh.
For Woeste, who came down to visit her friend, Saturday was her first experience watching hockey. "It was a lot of fun. I just wish I could skate like they do."
Andy and Niki Hedlund, with son Will and daughter Stella, attended Hockey Day events since Thursday. Andy played in the MSU alumni game Friday evening. Now living in Maple Grove, the family stayed at a home they rented near MSU through Airbnb.
"It's been awesome here, very fun," said Niki.
The local Hockey Day committee wasn't sure how many tickets would sell for Saturday, the main event of what was turned into an eight-day celebration, said co-chair Michelle Schooff.
"We exceeded our expectations. Our goal for Saturday was 8,000 and we exceeded that (in ticket sales) earlier in the week so we expanded our capacity and security." Final numbers for Saturday were expected to be around 9,000.
The event required 500 volunteers.
"They're doing everything from supervising the auxiliary rinks where little kids are skating to keeping firewood stocked in the fire pits, taking out trash, ushering people to the stands, keeping people off the glass so everyone can see, and just overall crowd management," Schooff said.
Tim Gulden, a retired sheriff's department commander from St. Paul and now a private security consultant, was overseeing both paid and volunteer security for Hockey Day.
He coordinated efforts between Mankato police, MSU security, the Minnesota Wild and Bally Sports, which does all of the live coverage of the Hockey Day games.
"It's just watching out for the safety of all the guests and to be prepared for any emergencies that might come up," Gulden said of setting up the substantial security efforts.
Beyond the professional paid security on hand, volunteers helped keep an eye on the large crowds.
"Things have gone really good. No problems," he said.
The first ticketed event was Thursday night when the Johnny Holm Band played in the 18,000-square-foot tent.
Friday featured the Mankato East vs. West high school game and Minnesota State University men's alumni game, followed by music by IV Play.
Saturday included boys and girls high school games, the MSU Mavs vs. St. Thomas, a youth skills challenge, live streaming of the Wild game from Xcel Energy Center on jumbotrons and live music.
Sunday finishes the festivities with MAHA teams, a MSU women's alumni game, MSU women vs. St. Thomas, the Steele County Blades vs. Minnesota Mullets, the first ever Juniors match up as part of Hockey Day Minnesota and adult league play. (hockeydaymnmankato.com).
Anna Thill, president of Visit Mankato, said Hockey Day is a boost to the area.
"It puts us on the map. It gives us a real tool to pull people in. It's a gem to have in our community, especially this time of year," Thill said.
While it will be a while before Thill will have detailed information on how many out-of-town visitors Hockey Day attracted, she knows the draw is substantial.
East Grand Forks alone brought a large contingent for their high school's game on Saturday. The school's booster club bought 400 tickets, with the team, family and East Grand Forks fans coming in.
Dan Nowacki was one of the East Grand Forks fans at Hockey Day and was impressed with the Mankato venue.
"They keep building on it. This is really nice. Your local brewery even has a Hockey Day beer," he said. Mankato Brewery produced a "Hockey Day MN Cross-Czech Pilsner" beer to celebrate the event.
Thill said the local committee did a great job.
"It's great story having it in southern Minnesota for the first time and all of the things the committee added to it. Southern Minnesota raised the bar," Thill said.
Schooff said the committee wanted to make the event special.
"This is the first time it's been held south of the metro area and we wanted to do our region proud — to show this is how we hockey in southern Minnesota."
Fire pits a hit
With below normal cold, the dozens of fire pits located around the main tent were a big draw.
The steel pits were one of many of the things donated by area businesses and individuals for Hockey Day.
"We designed them and cut them on our lasers and formed them," said Dave Richards of Jones Metal in Mankato.
"It was a pretty big project. They're big and there's a lot of steel in them," he said.
"I've been hearing good feedback on them. They've probably been well used in this cold."
The fire pits are among a number of donated items that are being auctioned off.
"There's the fire pits, plus two larger fire features Kato Manufacturing did that we're auctioning off," Schooff said. "And there's signed jerseys from former NFL stars, and there's some custom made tables and bars RW Carlstrom built."
Dozens of businesses and organizations have donated items, time or money.
Earlier in the week, Crystal Valley cooperative stepped in to help with the bitter cold.
"Crystal Valley donated all the propane we need for heat. It's so cold we need a lot for the big tent and other tents and the heated benches (for players). It would have been a big expense that we don't have now, so it was very generous," Schooff said.
"After we cover our expenses all the money left stays in town and stays in a fund in the Mankato Area Foundation, which is our fiscal agent."
Schooff said the money will be used to grow hockey locally. "It may be scholarships for youth or maybe ice expansion. It's the reason we all wanted to be involved in this."
Hotels booked up
Area hotels began being booked soon after the location for Hockey Day was announced.
"We're booked out Thursday, Friday and Saturday," said Chris Crowell, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn.
"Quite a while back we knew it was going to be big. Everybody in town is booked up," he said.
"It comes at a good time. We had a relatively good November and December, but we had a small number of reservations canceled recently because of omicron. It's affected things but nothing like last year," Crowell said.