Junior hockey is alive and well in Blaine and the surrounding communities as the Junior Gold ‘A’-level Ice Dogs came within one win of a Minnesota Hockey League state title.
Photo gallery: Ice Dogs vs. Edina
The Ice Dogs, which changed its mascot before last season, lost 6-1 to Edina in the championship game of the Minnesota Hockey League state tournament played at Plymouth Ice Arena, March 16-18.
Blaine found itself in an unfamiliar spot at the state tournament after years of mediocre play. It reached the finals by winning games against Eden Prairie (5-4) and Minnetonka (3-1) in the opening rounds and, hopefully, set the tone for a bright future as an alternative hockey league for high school-aged players not in a high school program.
The Ice Dogs, which comprise high school-aged boys’ players from Anoka, Andover, Blaine, Coon Rapids, Spring Lake Park, Irondale and St. Francis (Minnesota Hockey’s District 10) have come a long way in recent years not only in posting wins but cleaning up their reputation and that of the league, which had two knocks against it as an overly-hostile league for those who weren’t good enough to make it on the prep team.
The Ice Dogs, which call Fogerty Arena home, posted a 27-15-3 record, finished fourth in the Jr. Gold A’s regular season standings with a 15-7-2 record (52 points), a huge improvement over last season’s eight wins.
Part of the success resulted from the number of kids coming out for the team.
Blaine already had nine returnees from last season and bumped that number to 58 for tryouts after only 28 came out for the tryouts for the three junior teams.
First-year Ice Dogs coach Ron Eggerichs helped coach the team last season and had coached 14 of the 18 players on the roster at some time in youth hockey over the years.
“I knew they were good hockey players and it was more of an attitude adjustment to believe in themselves,” Eggerichs said, who coached his son, Brett Eggerichs, a senior at Blaine, who finished second on the team in points with 62 (42 assists) playing in all 45 games. This was his second season with the team.
Conlan Meade led the way with 64 points (39 goals), Josh Marquardt added 59 points (32 goals) and Jake Thomas had 43 points (24 goals) to round out the top scorers. Fourteen skaters had 12 or more points with nine collecting more than 21 points.
Goalies Lyle Slawson (17-6-1, 2.42 goals against average, .883 saves percentage) split time with Mitch Colwell (10-9-2, 3.19 goals against average, .874 saves percentage).
Getting that confidence back took some time, according to Eggerichs. “By mid season they turned it around and put it all together,” Eggerichs said.
Raising the Ice Dogs’ level of competition was a tough task. “Hopefully we brought some credibility to it.” Eggerichs said. ”It’s something these kids can turn to and a place to have fun.”
“That was key. Most of these kids have suffered enough rejection in their lives. We wanted to make this as much fun as possible.”
Eggerichs made it more enjoyable by getting back to the roots of sportsmanship and competition. “We hit the ice five days a week and the intensity level is still high, but they’re there because they want to play,” he said. “They’ve been cut but they want to keep playing and they all have something left to prove.”
Despite being cut by the high school program, many of the players on both sides, remained friends and showed up to each other’s games.
“That was really the neatest thing,” Eggerichs said. “We had 10 seniors on the team this year and half of the [Blaine] high school team came to our games. There isn’t a separation. I’ve coached on both sides of them and they all played together growing up. They hang out all the time.”
About the biggest challenge Eggerichs faced was guiding the team to overcome the initial rejection and refocusing its energy on making the Ice Dogs successful.
“It really has been a successful experience,” he said. “We haven’t had any problems with the kids outside the rink or in the classroom.”
The level of dedication showed up in another way as Eggerich rostered 18 players, knowing some might not show up from time-to-time. “The fun part is we never missed one kid from practice or a game unless they were hurt,” he said. “That tells me they wanted to be here and had fun.”
Adding to the fun was how Eggerichs used his players. “Everyone got plenty of ice time too,” he said. “We played them [on lines] one-two-three all year and rotated goalies every game. They feel like their part of it and we kept the lines together for most of the season.”
The mid-season turnaround started after Eggerichs shifted a few lines around and then kept them together until the end of the season.
That streak went out the window when they unexpectedly made it to state. The Ice Dogs played short five players, four because of previous commitments over the spring break and another was injured.
That meant 11 players did their best ironman impressions to play the most intense games of the season on back-to-back days, Friday and Saturday.
Blaine beat a Minnetonka that handed Edina two losses during the regular season 5-4 in the state opener Friday evening. Minnetonka won both regular season meetings against Blaine.
Next up was Eden Prairie, who fell to the Ice Dogs for the fourth time of the season 3-1.
In addition to the regular season contests, the Ice Dogs played in five weekend tournaments winning at Elk River and taking third place at Duluth and Eden Prairie. They didn’t bring any hardware home from the Minnetonka tournament.
The success of the junior gold program seems to come from willingness of parents to invest the time to establish the program as the progression of the youth hockey association.
The Ice Dogs operate as part of the Blaine Youth Hockey Association, but Blaine Junior Gold program organizer Chuck Taylor said there was a need to fix the situation and he took it on head first.
“What I’ve experienced is a corner of youth hockey that was being ignored and myself and few others have a propensity to fix things so we build a good, solid program with a couple other coaches,” he said.
The goal of the group was not only to re-establish the program, but build it up for the future, Taylor said. “We want this to be a competitive group season after season,” he said.
He looked around the rest of the Junior Gold leagues and noticed the typical coaching experience was 10 years or more, Taylor said. “It’s a great, fun league to be a part of,” he said.
Long-term, Taylor hopes to develop a synergy between the high school programs and Junior Gold at different degrees. “We want the kids to know that if they get cut, their time isn’t over in hockey if you’re not part of the high school program,” he said. “We’re actually very complementary of their program instead of being a threat to what they’re doing.”
He hopes the success of both the Jr. Gold ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams helps gain some notice by the high school coaches, Taylor said.
Taylor worked with Troy Wolens (Blaine) and Mark Klien (coach from Irondale) to keep the Ice Dogs going, he said. “It was [Wolens] talking to me and for me to get the ball rolling for what it is today,” Taylor said.
The name Ice Dogs arose from the first group which practiced at Fogerty Arena, which has the nickname of the “Ice House.”
“At this level, we had to change the name from a branding standpoint and separate ourselves from the Blaine High School program so the kids came up with the name and it stuck,” Taylor said.
He also compliments the establishment of the Metro Hockey League over the last five seasons with cleaning up what was known as a heavily physical league.
“Now if you get one fight you’re out of the game and two fights you’re out of the league,” Eggerichs said.
“In the old days it was considered the loser league or the last place to go to play hockey,” Taylor said. “We have a different view. It’s a place to play hockey at a high school-level program to keep kids playing hockey who want to play in a competitive league.”
The league’s season runs December-February with play downs (or a league-wide playoff) beginning immediately following the end of the regular season. That culminates with the state tournament.