Edina boasts a robust youth program with more than 1,250 players, sponsorship revenue that, in 2017, raised about $150,000 and a passionate army of volunteer coaches and administrators.
Mike Vorlicky started skating lessons when he was two years old. He was a regular hanging out at the outdoor rink at Pamela Park in Edina, Minnesota, when he was 5 1/2.
“I would go every day,” Vorlicky says. “(Hockey) was always my passion.”
Starting at the age of 7, Jake Boltmann was also a fixture at Pamela Park, anxiously waiting for any chance to get on the ice when the big kids — and even adults — weren’t playing.
“You drive around neighborhoods in Edina, and you see all the rinks and everyone skating around, even when it’s negative 30,” Boltmann says. “It’s just an awesome atmosphere. Everyone in Edina loves hockey.”
The Wild developed “The State of Hockey” marketing campaign in the NHL’s return to Minnesota during the 2000-01 season. The phrase endures, and the proof regularly showcases itself: Minnesota leads all U.S. states with 261 former and current NHL players, according to Hockey Reference; the electrifying U.S. Women’s team that won the hockey gold medal at the PyeongChang Olympics featured eight players from Minnesota; the Minnesota State High School Boys Hockey Tournament last month hosted more than 100,000 fans at Xcel Energy Center and online viewers from 37 countries and all 50 states; and the University of Minnesota-Duluth men’s hockey team surprisingly won the NCAA championship with 16 homegrown players.
But if Minnesota is “The State of Hockey,” then Edina can proclaim itself the state capital. Though not Minnesota’s oldest high school hockey program, Edina has a record nine state championships (12 if you count the three won by Edina East), and Edina Hockey Association claimed the title in five of this year’s 14 boys and girls classifications, from Pee Wee all the way up. Some might suggest it was a “down” year for Edina, with the boys’ high school team losing 4-2 to Duluth East in a Class AA semifinal, but the girls’ high school team won a second straight state title this spring.
Yet the Hornets’ sting maintains its dominion over the sport, buoyed by a robust youth program with more than 1,250 players, sponsorship revenue that, in 2017, raised about $150,000 and a passionate army of volunteer coaches and administrators.
“Edina has a huge legacy,” Boltmann says. “Every time you step on the ice, you have a target on your back, so everyone will play their best game against you. That’s something I love.”
More than Money
Critics point to the affluence of Edina, which consistently ranks among the top suburbs in Minnesota in terms of media household income (the current median home listing price is $550,000, according to realtor.com), as the primary driver of its success.
Hockey parents raised $800,000 toward a $3.6 million renovation of Braemar Arena in 2012 that included four stylishly-decorated locker rooms, a sporting goods store and a space for a privately-owned sports training center, where private one-on-one, 45-minute on-ice sessions start at $95.
Hockey, without question, is an expensive sport. Yet the sport’s popularity in Edina transcends dollars and cents.
Consider the 12 outdoor rinks the Edina Parks and Recreation department meticulously maintains, where 22,313 skaters took the ice between December and March. Or consider that Edina’s only had three boys high school head coaches — Willard Ikola, Bart Larson and Curt Giles — over the last six decades. Or consider that any young athlete interested in playing the sport will be placed on a team, regardless of age or skill level.
“We don’t cut anyone,” EHA board member Jim Dahline says. “We can always make an extra team.”
Boltmann, a sophomore, and Vorlicky, a junior, are two of the stars on the high school varsity team. Both already have verbally committed to play Division I collegiate hockey, Boltmann at the University of Minnesota and Vorlicky at the University of Wisconsin.
But both highlight the cultural impact of hockey in Edina. Boltmann recalls marveling at the excitement at Hornet hockey games in the student section, while one of Vorlicky’s favorite memories was a non-varsity game a few seasons ago.
Edina’s Junior Gold boys hockey team needed seven overtimes to defeat Wayzata to earn a spot in the national championships.
“The lights went out,” Vorlicky recalls, noting that the game went so late the automatic sensors shut off the lights. “Everyone in Edina cared about that team because they were a blast to watch.”
Edina borders Minneapolis, yet Beth Psihos could feel the impact — and influence — of hockey when she moved her family to Edina. Kids in the community play many sports, yet hockey reigns supreme.
“It’s a juggernaut,” she says. “It’s ‘The Thing.’ ”
Hockey helped her son Max make friends but denied him something he desired: an opportunity to play varsity hockey in high school. He had prospects in other suburbs, but not Edina.
"He wasn’t quite good enough,” Beth says. “He was a bubble kid.”
So Max played three to four times a week on one of Edina’s Junior Gold B teams.
“He’s had good coaches,” Beth adds, “and a good experience.”
Mike MacMillan is a hockey luminary, both locally and nationally. The executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association since 2006, MacMillan was also a successful high school coach, is currently an assistant coach at Hamline University and also serves nationally, including as the USA Hockey national coach-in-chief. MacMillan, who resides in Ramsey, Minnesota, points to three key reasons for Edina’s consistency.
“They’ve been able to maintain their numbers, and it’s a positive place for families to be,” MacMillan says. “They also support all the kids, whether you’re a C player, gold player, or high school player. All their players feel a part of the Edina hockey community. And the expectations are high, just as they are in Roseau and other (Minnesota) communities.”
Willard Ikola is one of the most famous prep coaches in Minnesota history, the man who spearheaded Edina’s rise and culminated with many local and national records, titles and honors. Though he retired in 1991, his legacy remains: Braemar Arena, Edina’s hockey home, officially resides at 7501 Ikola Way.
But less heralded coaches in Edina have also greatly shaped generations of hockey players of all sizes and skillsets, something outgoing Edina Hockey Association president Steve Velner yearned to address. So, unveiled earlier this year inside Braemar Arena was the Cornerstone Wall, which honors volunteer coaches, board members, managers or coordinators.
The inaugural class of 12 included Steve Fox, a volunteer coach in the program for over 40 years.
“Foxy was my coach in Midgets,” Velner says. “That was a big deal, to hand out that award to him and introduce him to my kids. There are so many people who don’t understand the importance of people like him.”
Fox played hockey in the 50s and 60s, playing in two varsity games. His father founded the hockey association with just two traveling teams and no indoor rink to call home. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Fox returned home and volunteered to coach one of his younger brother’s hockey teams.
The rest, of course, is history.
“I try to pass on the torch,” Fox says, “so the legacy goes on.”
Legendary players from Edina don’t forget where they come from. Yet the program also consistently attracts hockey dignitaries; former North Stars player, coach and general manager Lou Nanne’s family has been a part of the program and former Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Brian Lawton once coached an Edina Squirt team.
“They’ve always done a very good job of selecting quality coaches because, when the rubber hits the road or the skate hits the ice, it’s about coaching,” MacMillan says. “From the top, they’ve always had quality coaches, with high expectations of their players, and that transcends down to their youth programs. (Coaches) with good hockey backgrounds, passion, and always striving to get better.”
“It gets in your blood,” says Bill Smith, one of the inaugural members of EHA’s Cornerstone Wall. “In Edina, it’s the thing we do.”
Hockey, after all, is more than a sport.
Which is why, at 75 years young, Smith still plays hockey.