A friend of mine was watching his grandson play hockey the other night. His grandson is seven. He was playing outdoors at a Duluth rink.
"It was a really cold night," my friend said. "I was all bundled up, and I was freezing. But the kids were having fun. The cold didn't bother them a bit."
They scooted up and down the ice, scoring occasional goals in a game where no score was kept. After the "game" ended, coaches threw a bunch of pucks out onto the ice, he said. The mini-skaters could carry the pucks along the ice, engage in friendly one-on-ones, whatever. It was unstructured free and fun time.
Amid all that random puck handling, my friend saw a little girl down at one end with her puck in front of the net.
"She would shoot the puck into the net, reach in, pull it out, put it in front of the net and shoot it in again. She did that over and over," he said.
My friend might have done something much the same when he was a young pup. He was a good hockey player growing up. Played in high school and college. Still plays once a week.
He was getting a real kick out of watching the young girl.
"When they were all done, she came skating over to her dad, who was standing near me," my friend said. "She skated up to the boards and said, 'Dad! I scored 19 goals!'"
I had a hunch what my friend was thinking: This is how it begins. This is how so many grow up in Minnesota. On the rink, inside or out, all hours of the day and night, shooting pucks, bouncing them off the boards and carrying them to the net, shooting, falling, getting up, doing it all again. And again and again.
Maybe these young pucksters have watched older siblings — girls or boys — playing up through the ranks and into high school. The young ones have played in backyards and on neighborhood rinks. They've been to watch countless games, inside and out, among squirts, peewees, bantams, high school teams and college teams.
And as sure as that little girl put 19 shots in the net on a frigid Duluth night, they have dreamed of someday going to the state high school tournament and doing exactly the same thing when it really matters.
I was thinking of that little girl while watching the end of the Hermantown-Greenway double-overtime Section 7A title game the other night. I had missed the early part of the game but saw the Greenway goal that tied it with less than a second left in regulation time. And though I have no allegiance to either team, I was all in for overtime. (It's a lot easier to watch one of those games when you don't have any emotional ties to either team.)
I was astonished, again, at the skill of Minnesota high school hockey players. I was moved by the level of speed and passion and intensity in their play. So many amazing moves. So many near misses. So many shots turned away by stellar goalies.
And finally, one went in.
Just like all 19 of those the little girl scored.