BAUDETTE, Minn. — Fifteen years ago, Jon Waibel did not envision himself as a farmer. Ten years ago he did not see himself as a politician. And six weeks ago, he would would never have envisioned encouraging tourists not to come fishing on Lake of the Woods.
Welcome to the crazy spring of 2020 for this two-time national champion hockey player for the Minnesota Gophers. Now making a life farming sunflowers, soybeans and wheat a few miles northwest of his hometown, Waibel is also a Lake of the Woods County commissioner.
As that board’s chair, Waibel put his name to the recent letter, closing the public access points to the lake, effectively telling folks from outside the region — and their vitally important tourist dollars — to stay away, at least for the time being.
“It’s one of those things where we don’t have a choice, as unfortunate as it is,” Waibel said, losing count of the number of people from outside the region who have “called up and yelled at” him in the past two weeks. “I get it, guys, I understand you want to come up here. But it’s not smart for you to come here now. I don’t want people bringing (the virus) up here, and if someone up here has got it, I don’t want you to bring it back home.”
The order came after Waibel, first elected to the county board in 2016, spent hours on the phone with the Governor Tim Walz’s office, seeking guidance from St. Paul. He admits that the decree is difficult to enforce, and with a body of water as big as Lake of the Woods, determined people will still find a way to launch boats.
But with none of the area’s resorts currently open, those who come to fish are doing so for the day, are usually maintaining social distance, and aren’t staying overnight, which was the intent of the efforts.
Even with a sister working for U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar in Washington, D.C., “politician” is a role that Waibel did not see for himself.
“When I first moved back here in 2011, I would have complaints about some things with the county,” he recalled. “A friend said to me, ‘If you’re going to keep complaining, maybe you should run.’ And I said, ‘Maybe I will,’ and then I did.”
Waibel, 37, made his way back to the northernmost region of Minnesota, where he coaches youth hockey, through a series of unexpected events. After graduating from the U of M in 2004 with a communications and marketing degree, along with a pair of NCAA championship rings, he coached hockey first at Buffalo (Minn.) High School, then as an assistant with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League. He was promoted to head coach of the Steel at the start of the 2010-11 season, but was fired in late February 2011 after a team lacking many healthy bodies got off to a 9-27-7 start.
Not long after that, Waibel’s own body sent him a wake-up call.
“At Christmastime of 2011, I had a seizure in Wal-Mart in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Nobody knows why,” Waibel said. “I ended up in the hospital and they got me calmed down. I was fine, and never had anything happen after that. But they pulled my license and I couldn’t drive for four months.”
Encouraged by his parents to come back to Baudette and recuperate there, he started helping his father with farm work. That led to planting crops in the spring of 2012. That led to a new career in agriculture.
“I kind of took a passion for it, and I’ve been here ever since,” Waibel said. “Every time I look at my college degree, I kick myself that I didn’t take some ag classes. My dad farmed and he’s been up here since 1978, so I’ve always been around it. But if you’d have asked me when I was a kid if I was going to come back here and be a farmer, I’d have laughed. If I said I’d ever be back here, period, I’d have laughed.”
A trusted Gopher
On the ice, Waibel was paired on a line with Jake Fleming for much of their time as Gophers teammates. While that duo was never known to produce many points, they had their coaches' trust, always.
“They were good defensively. Neither was going to be big scorers, because we had other guys to do that, but they knew their role,” said former Gophers coach Don Lucia, who visited the Waibel farm in 1999 to recruit Jon. “We weren’t afraid to play them against anybody. I look back at the national championship game in ‘02, and they were out there in overtime, faceoffs in our own zone.”
Another NCAA title game memory stands out for current Gophers coach Bob Motzko, who was an assistant during Waibel’s time as a player.
In the 2003 title game in Buffalo, N.Y., the Gophers led New Hampshire 2-1 in the third period when Waibel was whistled for hooking. What could have been a bad penalty turned into the clincher a little over two minutes later when, shortly after leaving the penalty box, Waibel scored to put the Gophers up 3-1 on their way to a 5-1 win.
“He always had a big heart. Great teammate. He took a penalty when that game was tight and he came out of the box and scored with a set-up from (Thomas) Vanek. That was the goal that launched us,” Motzko remembers. “He was one of the more popular guys on the team. He always had a smile and was great to be around.”
And when the pandemic is over, Waibel and his constituents in Lake of the Woods County will be happy to be around the visitors who chase walleyes once again.