Open All Night

Come Early, Stay Late And Skate Every Day A Way Of Life In Hockeytown, USA
Jess Myers


On the  wind-swept plains of South Dakota, a small pharmacy named Wall Drug became a world-renowned tourist attraction with a simple enticement to get road-weary travelers to stop in. They offered free water.

Roughly 700 miles away, on the edge of the wind-swept prairies of northwestern Minnesota, the small town of Warroad has carved out its place among the great hockey communities by offering something similar. At all hours of the day and night, at the two indoor rinks that are the focal points of the town, they offer free ice.

Above the smaller ice sheet known as the Olympic Arena-named for the eight Warroad men and women who have skated for Team USA in Olympic competition between 1956 (Gordon "Ginny" Christian) and the present (Gigi Marvin)-hangs a giant sign. It serves as a bit of life guidance for countless kids in this town of 1,800 that's been known as "Hockeytown USA" since the 1950s.

"Hockeytown. Come Early, Stay Late. Skate Every Day," it reads, offering a reminder that ice time is free and abundant for any boy or girl who wants to come to the rink.

"It doesn't cost any money to skate, so we tell the kids to come here and find a friend and stay here," said Mike Marvin, who is Gigi's father and the de facto ambassador of all things Warroad hockey. "The beauty of it is a Squirt kid can go to Peewee practice, a Peewee kid can go to Squirt practice, the girls can practice with the boys. You actually can come here and stay here. Nobody kicks you off the ice."

That's more than a recruiting pitch in this small community where there are seemingly always jobs to be filled at the local window and door factory, and they always encourage young families to see all that's offered in Warroad.

Long before he was toiling with the New York Islanders, Brock Nelson learned to skate on that unlimited free ice sheet, and remembers some late nights where the kids didn't want to leave the rink. In Warroad, it's rare for an adult to tell the kids that hockey is over and it's time to go home.

"As you got older, you pretty much went there all the time. There were nights when we'd have a seven o'clock practice, and if there was nothing scheduled after that, the arena guys would let us shut the lights off when we were done. It went pretty late a few times," recalled Nelson, who is the seventh Warroad kid to earn a NHL paycheck. 

Unlike some of the classic wooden barn-style arenas that dot the small towns in the northern tier of the United States, the Gardens in Warroad is less than 25 years old, having opened in the summer of 1993 with none other than Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, standing at center ice to offer his blessings and well wishes to the kids who would play there. 

It's a modern facility with theater-style seating and a huge lobby with massive windows offering a commanding view of the Olympic-size ice sheet and Warroad's multitude of state championship banners hanging from the rafters.

In this factory town where it's common for two parents to work either the morning or night shift making windows, many Warroad kids literally find a home away from home at the rink. They always have somewhere safe to go, and something healthy to do after school.

"It's truly the center of the community. There isn't a whole lot else to do in the winter and everything kind of revolves around what's going on at the arena, whether it's practice or games or scrimmages," said Jay Hardwick, Warroad's boys high school coach. "It's kind of the hub. If you want to run into somebody, just go to the arena and you'll likely see them there." 

While showing a group of visitors around the rink and its new dryland training facility one evening, Marvin pointed out a corner of the lobby where there are benches for kids to change into their gear, and dozens of hockey bags and sticks-stuffed with thousands of dollars in equipment-sat unattended. 

"I don't know where else this happens, but these hockey bags are in here every day and they never go home. In a small town, that's the way it works," Marvin said. 

"We're a block from the school. On Sept.15 we put our ice in and the high school teams don't start practice until the end of October, so we've got six weeks where kids came come over after school. There are 30 to 40 bags here every day, and they leave them here."

The parents put $20 or so in an account for their child at the arena's concession stand. When their son or daughter gets hungry or thirsty, they take a break from the ice time and grab a hot dog and a sports drink. Then they're back to working on their outside edges and their wrist shots and their saucer passes. When nobody pays for the ice, no team can rightfully claim it's their private ice time, so everyone skates with everyone sometimes. Girls with boys, Squirts with Bantams, whatever.

"Whenever you would go to the rink you'd find a game. The teams would be pretty mixed, depending on what was going on. Boys, girls, all ages, whoever was there," Nelson said. "If we didn't have goalies we'd use a tennis ball and see who could hit the post. If you had one goalie you'd play half ice, everybody against everybody. It was crazy."

It's also how Warroad hockey continues to survive and thrive against rival communities with double or triple or 10 times the number of kids to choose from. In Warroad, it's rare to have more than 25 skaters at any age level, so they split those two dozen kids into A and B teams and compete head-to-head with regional centers and Twin Cities suburban programs that dwarf Warroad everywhere but on the scoreboard.

"That's what allows us to compete with other places is the ice time, because we don't have the numbers of kids," Marvin said. "We very rarely have 30 kids or 28 kids at one level. Whatever we do it has to be a product of the ice time."

That's life at the rink in Hockeytown USA, where the kids come early, they stay late, and they skate every day.

Jess Myers is a native of Warroad who now lives in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.




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