BEMIDJI, Minn. — Subzero temperatures. Cracked ice. Frosted glass.
Bemidji’s turn at hosting Hockey Day Minnesota one year ago came with a unique set of challenges.
Thermometers beside the south shore of Lake Bemidji read 26 degrees below zero when the puck dropped on a daylong celebration of hockey, making Hockey Day Minnesota 2019 the coldest in event history.
“Luckily, I think we were prepared,” said Tom Kuesel, Bemidji organizing committee chairman. “But it’s still easier to think of how you’re going to do it than to actually do it when it’s 26 below.”
It’s unlikely the mercury will plummet that far on the 14th annual Hockey Day Minnesota on Saturday at Parade Stadium in Minneapolis. Or, in all likelihood, at any future Hockey Day again.
“It’s certainly added to the lore of the event for us to have that lowest temperature ever at the beginning of a Hockey Day,” said committee member Brian Bissonette. “That will be pretty tough to beat.”
The festivities stretched over three days for the event organized in conjunction with Fox Sports North, the Minnesota Wild and Minnesota Hockey, and the weather only grew colder as the week wore on.
The veteran ice crew, helmed by Pittsburgh Penguins ice maker Brandon Radeke, pulled an all-nighter during the days leading up to the event to smooth out cracks and heaves that had formed.
“They spent one night where they divided into two shifts and spent the entire night flooding the rink,” Kuesel said. “They got 17 floods down in one night.”
The rink was nursed into playing shape by the time the first games rolled around.
“We weren’t going to let people skate on it if it wasn’t safe,” Kuesel said. “You hit a crack and twist a knee, you’re out the rest of the season. They worked really, really hard to make sure it was good.”
Bizarrely, the ice was actually warmed by the rink’s refrigeration system. Typically, ice is kept at around 24 degrees for hockey rinks.
“At the end of the day that chiller saved our event because it was actually heating the ice, which sounds bizarre,” Bissonette said. “But because of the temperatures and how low they were, that really created some brittle ice conditions to where that chiller was actually able to heat the ice to the right temperatures to be able to make it a playable surface.”
Another challenge arose the morning of Hockey Day when rink workers had to use propane torches to melt frost off the glass.
Moving games indoors to the Sanford Center was a back-up plan that fortunately never had to be implemented because of the sunny, windless conditions.
“Had it been 26 below and windy and cloudy, we probably would have been inside,” Kuesel said. “But I think the wind and the calm conditions saved us. If you have a wind off that lake of any significance, it would have been brutal and it would not have been safe.”
The decision was made Wednesday that week to play the games outdoors as scheduled.
“No one, from players to coaches to FSN to the Wild, said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” Kuesel said. “They all saw the same news that we saw and agreed that it was a go. And so there was never any hesitation about going forward with what we knew at the time.”
A Minnetonka boys hockey player suffered frostbite during the first Hockey Day game Saturday, according to the Star Tribune, though no other players were reported to have suffered any cold-related injuries.
Bemidji at least didn’t need to worry about snow, which is in the forecast for Minneapolis this weekend. Bemidji organizers have helped advise Minneapolis as the state’s largest city prepared to host Hockey Day Minnesota 2020.
“It won’t be as cold as it was in Bemidji but they may have other challenges that we didn’t,” Kuesel said.
As much as the frigid temperatures made Bemidji’s turn in the spotlight as Hockey Day Minnesota host one for the record books, so did the support from hundreds of volunteers, thousands of fans and countless others.
“That’s what was most memorable to me,” Kuesel said. “The games were a lot of fun and everything, but to me, seeing the way that the community rallied around the event and supported it and turned out in the cold weather, that was by far the coolest thing.”