Passion on ice
The new adult hockey league at the Willmar Civic Center was long overdue.
Six teams are on ice each Wednesday night at the main Cardinal Arena. Enthusiasm radiates the rink.
Rosters bulge with 17 to 19 players. It's a co-ed league, too. There are a half-dozen females.
Among the familiar names is Elyse Dowdell, the goalie on two Willmar teams that went to the girls state tournament before she played in college.
Ex-collegiate players and even skaters with professional experience mix with raw rookies.
Brad Saeger, who works for an accounting firm, was a 6-foot-6 basketball player at BOLD High School, graduating in 1997.
"I never played hockey in my life, but I had watched the Wild a lot and really liked the sport," he said after being on the losing side of Duininck Inc.'s 7-4 mild upset of Play It Again Sports. "This is my first year and I'm having so much fun. I've even got one goal."
Judd Duininck, who almost single-handedly pulled the league together, said the emphasis is on parity.
"We took care to mix all different skill levels," said the Prinsburg native. "We didn't let captains just select the best players. It was mix and match."
The balance showed up well in Week 9, Jan. 6, when the three teams below .500 each won while playing against the top three teams.
Many of the players are former Willmar Cardinals, from the early 1980s to the present, returning to their home rink.
"It's a great feeling playing with your old teammates," said Kris Duininck, a 1995 graduate and "maybe a distance relation" to Judd. He plays for Duinincks with former high school teammates Steve Wentzell, Scott Martinka, Justin Bos and Matt Hanson.
Also on that squad is Al Arends of Pennock.
"I was home schooled, so I didn't play organized hockey," he said. He's learning fast. Already, he's scored two goals in one game this year.
Rolf Figenskau, another player new to organized hockey, said he got his nine-year-old son, Thor, into the Mites program because of what he is experiencing playing for the Subway squad. Fathers of current Cardinals, like Gabe Amon's dad, Tony, have suited up to get a taste of the action their sons see.
High school head coach Jeff Melby of the River Lake Stars boys team finds that the Wednesday league gives him a free evening to enjoy playing the game.
The league fits players of all backgrounds. Nate Metcalf of Subway played four years at Minnesota State, Mankato, three years of minor league hockey and a year in Germany. Dave Newcomer of Cullen's earned NCAA All-America honors at Gustavus Adolphus in 1990.
The skilled veterans have taken the rookies under their wing, helping them feel comfortable in a high-speed game, Duininck said.
The loop isn't for Willmar residents only. The name -- Willmar Area Adult Hockey League - was selected to encourage enrollees from other towns.
"We just want to grow the game at all levels," said Duininck, who began laying the groundwork in the spring of 2009. Until now, adult hockey at the Civic Center consisted of open hockey where players picked sides. Six might show up one night and 30 the next.
The league is non-checking and slap shots are limited to no more than a waste-high windup.
Duininck, who works for the Duininck Golf Course Division, played basketball at Central Minnesota Christian School. But he would sometimes show up at the Garfield Rink in Willmar on weekends distinctively wearing shin pads outside his pants.
"I couldn't skate backwards, but I got the opportunity to play JV hockey at Bethel College," he said. "It grew my interest in the sport even more."
The league, organized through Willmar Community Education and Recreation, has a 15-week schedule and, tentatively, a double-elimination playoff. The ice rate paid by the league is the standard $120 an hour for the Cardinal rink.
Up ahead, he and Civic Center supervisor Kevin Madsen are discussing plans for a "Learn to Play Hockey for Adults" sessions.
"When you have a passion for something, you want to be able to share the enjoyment with others," said Duininck.
For more on Willmar hockey and the adult league go to www.willmarhockey.com and link to teams.